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With Papelbon, it's hardly a closed case

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 19, 2010 09:20 AM

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250papelbon.jpgAnother year, another arbitration season, another debate concerning Jonathan Papelbon. And as the Red Sox creep nearer and nearer the seeming end of the relationship with their fearsome closer, a question remains.

Are they doing the right thing?

Roughly a month before the start of spring training, the Red Sox and Papelbon are due to exchange arbitration figures today.  (Editor's note: Papelbon and the Sox reached agreement on a one-year, $9.35 million deal Tuesday afternoon). In and of itself, that is neither a bad nor especially newsworthy thing. When all is said and done, arbitration really isn't much different than any other negotiation with a player who lacks the service time to file for free agency. Papelbon can't go anywhere until after the 2011 season, and the sides are merely leveraging over what his salary will be for the coming year.

The only difference is that the team does not get the right to decide (or "renew") in the absence of an agreement. The case goes before a third party and the player has as much say as the team does.

So is Papelbon worth $10 million? $11 million? $12 million? That is certainly open to debate. Regardless, for a Red Sox club that just gave 37-year-old Mike Cameron roughly $8 million a year and Marco Scutaro more than $6 million per season, does Papelbon's final number really matter?

So Papelbon might set a record for arbitration. So the Sox might end up with a $179 million
payroll under the luxury tax formula instead of a $177 million formula. Whoopee.

He's going to get a lot of money and he still won't be eligible for free agency until the fall of 2011.

The greater and more important questions here concern Papelbon's value to the Red Sox over the last four full seasons and whether the club will miss him if and when he leaves. This is where the Red Sox have a far more difficult decision than anyone might be willing to acknowledge.

We all know how the Sox have approached their closer situation during the era of John Henry, Tom Werner, Larry Lucchino, and Theo Epstein. First, Sox officials came in preaching the benefit of the famed "closer-by-committee," an approach that blew up like a trick cigar. In Epstein's first season as general manager, the Sox signed Mike Timlin and Ramiro Mendoza before trading for Byung-Hyun Kim and Scott Williamson - and they still needed Derek Lowe to close Game 5 of the 2003 American League Division Series against the Oakland A's.

That progression begot Keith Foulke, who begot Papelbon, who brings us to where we are today. Daniel Bard is the new flavor of the month who looks like a closer-in-waiting, but there is simply no way of knowing if Bard is the next great closer in baseball. At the very least, the odds are against it.

Given the Red Sox' approach with Papelbon and his early-career history of shoulder problems, maybe it is not surprising that media and many fans are simply assuming at this point that the Sox will let Papelbon walk after the 2011 campaign. Or maybe it is. The Red Sox have been so risk-averse during most contract negotiations that they have negotiated "protection" (or tried to) in recent deals involving J.D. Drew, John Lackey and Jason Bay, among others.

If the player hasn't been darned-near perfect - Mark Teixeira, for example - the Sox recently have seemed unwilling to extend themselves despite one of the greatest revenue streams in baseball. They stopped short on Teixeira. They stopped short on Bay. And their offense now will suffer as a result of it.

Let's not underestimate what Papelbon has meant to the operation here. Since Papelbon became the full-time closer in 2006, the Red Sox rank fourth in the American League in save percentage, behind only the Angels, Yankees and Twins. Generally speaking, those teams have employed Francisco Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan as their closers during that span. Along with the Sox, those teams also rank in the top four in the AL in overall winning percentage during that span.

Do we really need to debate the cause and effect of that? In any sport, it's one thing to have a roster that will get you leads. It's another to close them out, something that is becoming particularly evident in the wake of a Patriots season where the team simply could not close. (The Bruins have had some difficulty with this of late, too.)

At the risk of introducing a topic nobody wants to consider here, here goes: what if Daniel Bard takes a major step back this year? What is he repeats some of the late-game failures he demonstrated in 2009, be it at Tampa or New York?

Great closers don't grow on trees. Someone like David Aardsma might be able to come in off the street and have a terrific year, but the overwhelming odds are that he will not be able to repeat it. As a result, using Aardsma (or anyone even remotely like him) as some sort of barometer for the success and longevity of closers is utterly ridiculous.

At the moment, the Red Sox are under no obligation to give Papelbon a long-term deal. In that way, they would be wise to use the clock to their advantage. But if Papelbon is still performing at a high level in 18 months - the summer of 2011 - letting him go could be a colossal mistake, especially if the Red Sox do not have a clear cut replacement in waiting.

There is simply no way of knowing what Bard will be by then, but it will be impossible to overlook what Jonathan Papelbon has been.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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