You know, Curt Schilling wasn’t alone in wanting Jonathan Papelbon in the starting rotation, hoping to witness what the young stud could do with 200 innings under his belt.
I think in some form, fans of the game -- not just Red Sox fans -- want to see the next new thing, want to see skipper Terry Francona insert him into the No. 3 slot and watch him rattle off 20 wins, Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and come just shy of the MVP thanks to baseball’s ultimately hypocritical George King/Lavelle Neal clause, which has evidently spread to designated hitters as well.
Wait, he’s pitched in exactly 17 major league games? OK, so the MVP might have to wait.
There is little more exciting in baseball than witnessing new talent come in and take over the game and ensure its future stability. And nobody else in recent memory has received so much hype with such little on their resume this side of the Arctic Monkeys than Jonathan Papelbon.
After finishing 2005 with an impressive 2.65 ERA over 34 innings, and after dominating in his very first playoff experience against the White Sox, a lot was being hoisted onto the very board shoulders of Papelbon this offseason. “He’s the next Roger Clemens,” some touted, a comparison that no 25-year-old righthander should ever, ever have to hear in all its potential for failure to live up to such lofty and unattainable hype.
Remember when Jennifer Love Hewitt was the “next” Audrey Hepburn?
Nomar Garciaparra the “next” DiMaggio?
Deborah Norville the “next” Jane Pauley?
How’d those work out?
Much of the anticipation stems from the fact that the Red Sox have not groomed a 20-game winner from their farm system since Clemens in 1986, which even this arithmetic-deficient fella can tell you was two decades ago. With Papelbon comes not just outstanding talent but the cocky attitude that guys like Clemens have used as intimidation on the mound, that “I know you know I’m gonna get you, and here it comes” that is prevalent in fireballers across the league.
But he’s not Clemens, and nobody ever will be.
Then again, Clemens was at one point the “next” Nolan Ryan, the boyhood hero whose career he has dwarfed in credentials.
It is with a bit of selfishness that we took Francona’s news yesterday that Papelbon will begin the season in the bullpen as a disappointment. We wanted to watch Papelbon take the American League by storm, hoped to see if he could win 15-20 games, and witness as soon as we could whether he would become potential piece No. 2 of the Red Sox’ future “Big Three” starters (along with Josh Beckett and Jon Lester). Now he’ll start in the bullpen, where he is incidentally needed to play a much more vital role.
Francona also announced yesterday that Keith Foulke will begin the season as the team’s closer, news that probably freaked out Red Sox Nation a little despite its inevitability. There’s concern that Foulke might be done, a speculation based only on his 2005 performance, the news that he is receiving injections in his knees, and the fact that he has yet to pitch in an exhibition game this spring (he will throw today in a minor league game). As if that weren’t enough to make everyone reach for the Tums, Rudy Seanez will be with the club in 10 days when the season opens. No lie.
Mix in the fact that Mike Timlin is another year older, and that David Riske hasn’t exactly had an enduring spring (10.80 ERA), and there is legitimate concern once again about the state of the bullpen. Red Sox relievers had a 5.17 ERA last season, among the worst in baseball. It is the one aspect of the franchise that Theo Epstein has had just flashes of success with over the years, prompting another retooling this offseason with the bad taste of Seanez’s first stint still in our mouths.
In Papelbon and Lenny DiNardo, the Red Sox have a pair of sub-30-year-old pitchers who will take on very different, yet meaningful roles. DiNardo is the lefty specialist from Day One, but Papelbon will be a shape-shifter of sorts until he finds the right groove. He may set up Foulke, he may be a long man, and he may inevitably close if Foulke sputters out of the gate. And then, if Wells is finally shown the door or Matt Clement goes all bonkers on the mound, he’ll be back in the starting rotation. He’ll be like Waldo, Olde Towne Team style.
And if you think there’s just simply no room for him in the rotation this year, might we remind you of the inane conversations we all had last May, asking which pitcher would have to go to the ‘pen once Wade Miller returned? Things happen. Of course, a couple of outings later, the follow-up question was whether there was anyone out there to get Wade Miller out of the rotation.
In Papelbon, the Red Sox have a special commodity who has tantalized us all with a glimpse of his talent and hardiness on the hill, a teaser that has us in wild anticipation to witness the finished canvas rather than just a few strokes of the brush. But perhaps by pitching an inning or two here and there instead of five-or-six-inning stints in the rotation, Papelbon will instead enter the rotation down the road this season with a lively, young arm while elder statesmen like Schilling and (if he’s here) Wells begin to peter out.
There are no sure things in baseball, and expectations, especially out of young pitchers just breaking into the league, too often end up unfulfilled. Boston’s list is long with the supposed future (Jeff Sellers, Brian Rose, Carl Pavano, Aaron Sele), only to be derailed by any number of factors.
Jonathan Papelbon isn’t going to win the Cy Young in 2006, let’s get that straight, although I don’t think expectations in his ability have gone that completely out of control. But with his needed presence in the bullpen -- and eventually the starting rotation -- with a nails will to win, he very well may be the most valuable ingredient these 2006 Red Sox have.