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Closing the door on Papelbon

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  November 11, 2011 03:39 PM

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Though I'm perceived as the resident stats guy around here by some peers, I'd argue that I'm more nostalgic about baseball than anything else. Come to think of it, I'm long overdue for another misty paean to Fred Lynn or Butch Hobson and the summer of '78. ("In the cool autumn shade beneath a monstrous wall of green, Jack Brohamer hit a routine grounder to third base ...")

But even with that awareness of my incurable sentimental sensibilities and the knowledge that this day was going to arrive, I'm surprised by my initial reaction to the news that Jonathan Papelbon, the Red Sox' closer through six full seasons and a feature film's worth of good times and bad, is set to join the Philadelphia Phillies: I'm much more bummed than I thought I'd be. It's sort of similar to the feeling you get after your team's trusted closer blows a save, actually, watching another one get away.

Practically -- sabermetrically -- the decision to let the soon-to-be-31-year-old closer depart is a logical one, particularly if the terms of his deal with Philadelphia approach the fiscally ridiculous four-year, $44 million offer they reportedly made to incumbent closer Ryan Madson, a player three months older than Papelbon and not nearly as accomplished. [Update: If the reports of four years and at least $50 million are accurate, good for him for hitting that free agency jackpot he long coveted with an organization that is apparently unaware of Wins Above Replacement.]

It's been well-established that closers not named Mariano Rivera typically have a short shelf-life, are often volatile from season to season, and for the workload that they handle, really should not be paid much more than $5 million per season. Given that the Red Sox got the best of Papelbon at reasonable rates (though he did throw strikes in arbitration, earning $12 million in 2010) and the Phillies are likely to be overpaying for his decline whether it's steep or subtle, letting him go now will probably prove a prudent business decision by the Red Sox.

Eventually, it will prove a prudent baseball decision as well. But right now, on November 11, it doesn't feel that way, and it probably won't for a while. After the Red Sox' historic September collapse -- a meltdown in which he can't claim innocence, given that it's now assured that the last image of Papelbon in a Boston uniform is one him trudging off the mound, ashen-faced and staring daggers through the ground, after getting Andinoed yet again in the 162d and final game of the season -- we entered the offseason with the quaint notion that the priority should be bringing in more high-quality players who thrived in the spotlight.

Despite his ugly final scene -- Papelbon must still catch himself muttering, "Robert [Expletive] Andino?" every now and then -- a high-quality player who thrived in the spotlight is an accurate description of his time in Boston. A more colloquial way of putting it: It was a hell of a ride, Pap. He arrived in 2005 as a starting pitcher who answered to Jon, and 6 1/2-years later he departs a decorated if recently dented closer whose request to be called Jonathan never quite jibed with his goofy and informal manner away from the mound.

pap52finn.jpgOn the mound, he was poised from the beginning, showing promise as a starter from his 2005 debut against the Twins that bizarre July day when his arrival was overshadowed by the rumors that Manny Ramirez would be traded. But it soon became evident that his calling -- and his preference -- was to be a closer. He came to the rescue after all the evidence was compiled that his predecessor, Keith Foulke, would never be the same after sacrificing his career for a championship during the 2004 postseason, and he was electric and elite from the beginning. As a rookie in 2006, he compiled a season that fell somewhere between '78 Goose Gossage and Vintage Eck on the Unhittable Closer Scale, finishing with a 0.92 ERA, 35 saves, and 0.77 WHIP, and an ungodly 517 adjusted ERA. His famous glower wasn't nearly as menacing as his fastball.

The next season, he struck out 13 batters per nine innings, saved 37 games with a 1.85 ERA ... and created the image that will stay with us long after those snapshots from September 2011 have faded. It was Papelbon who got the final out to clinch the Red Sox' second World Championship in four years. And it was Papelbon who got the party started, and no doubt kept it going long after the champagne-soaked cameras had been dried off and put away. He carried himself in those ninth innings as if invincibility were his birthright, and his record suggested he might have been onto something: In his first 26 postseason innings, spread over four seasons, seven playoff series, and 17 games, he did not allow a single run.

Of course, invincibility never lasts in sports if you're around long enough, and just glance toward Foxborough if you need confirmation. There was a time not so long ago when Tom Brady was 10-0 in playoff games. Now he gets asked why he hasn't led his team to a playoff win since 2007. Papelbon's rude awakening that flawlessness was only temporary came during the Game 3 of the 2009 American League Division Series against the Angels, when he gave up the tying run in the eighth, melted down in the ninth, and took the loss in the final game of the season. He hasn't had a chance to redeem himself in the postseason since.

That chance will come with the Phillies. Philly is an excellent place for him, a big, high-pressure market with a stacked rotation and a talented veteran team. It probably won't feel much different to him from Boston, though he'd be wise to trade in the Bud Light for Yuengling.

But Fenway will feel different without him, and not only because stand-up closers who dance around with 12-pack boxes on their heads and weren't shy about breaking out the kilt every now and then tend to leave a lasting impression. He's going to be difficult to replace on the field. The days of perfection are gone, but he was still pretty damn good in 2011, trusting his secondary pitches more, lowering his WHIP to below 1.00 while striking out more than 12 batters per nine innings. Robert Andino may disagree, but he's still one of the toughest closers around, and whoever replaces him -- Heath Bell? Jonathan Broxton? -- has a lot to live up to.

Should it be the obvious in-house option, Daniel Bard, that leaves a significant hole in the relief ace role he filled so well (again, until September, the caveat for every pitcher not named Alfredo Aceves). It also probably eliminates the chance of Bard converting to a starter, an appealing possibility given his outstanding stuff and the need to eliminate any possibility that Tim Wakefield will be getting a regular turn in 2012.

Ben Cherington has said all the right things since taking over as general manager. He's done a remarkable job, with his openness and candor, of revealing his baseball acumen and allowing fans put the ugly fallout of September behind them. But the most important part of his job is ahead: supplementing a talented but flawed roster. Papelbon is gone, and the Red Sox are not a better team than they were yesterday. Knowing that, all we can do is wait to learn his what Cherington's plan is, to discover through his transactions whether he can do the right things as well.

Practically, yes, letting Jonathan Papelbon go is the right move. Sentimentally, it stings to know that jersey of one the players responsible for a championship here will be found on the 75-percent-off rack come spring. But all the answers won't be available until the games begin. Or more accurately, when they need to be finished.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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