Open and shut

You almost have to wonder if the Red Sox pursued an interest in Armando Benitez just to make their current options look better.

It was just hours after the San Francisco Chronicle reported yesterday that Boston called the Giants to kick the tires on the 34-year-old closer that both Peter Gammons and Jerry Remy said that if the season started tomorrow, manager Terry Francona would use Julian Tavarez as his closer.

And suddenly, Manny Ramirez’s public relations specialist didn’t seem so bad.

Brilliant. You think our guys are that bad? We’ll show you just how much worse it could be, bub. Shock therapy at its finest.

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But unless the daylight savings time continuum has gone haywire, the season does not start tomorrow, leaving Francona with a little less than three weeks to settle on a closer; maybe more considering the one he left camp with in that role last season lasted all of one day before Jonathan Papelbon stepped up and claimed the job for himself.
That, of course, is a scenario some see repeating itself at some juncture this year, if all other candidates burp up the chance to succeed in the role. Papelbon, of course, is coming off an All-Star season as the team’s closer, shuttling into the starting rotation by virtue of a shoulder injury that necessitated the move and sparking a whole lot of speculation as to whether he’ll return to the bullpen.
That talk is more indicative of how unstable the bullpen than anything else, but perhaps we haven’t spent enough time debating just how nasty he might potentially be in the starting rotation.
Ask most baseball fans which is more glamorous or beneficial to a major league team, a 20-win season or a 50-save season, and more often than not the answer will be the former. Depending on how the rest of their staff shakes out, teams with a 20-game winner are usually a good bet for October. The need for a closer has become evident over time, but the Cardinals also won the World Series with a guy — Adam Wainwright — who had three saves during the regular season, one fewer than he had during St. Louis’ playoff run.
Wainwright entered the 2006 season a 24-year-old kid with two games and a 13.50 ERA to his name. A few short months later, he was closing games on a title run. You think anybody was panicking in Cardinals camp in March as to whom was going to close once Jason Isringhausen went down? Probably not.
That’s not to say the 2007 Red Sox bullpen isn’t a concern. Hardly. But perhaps the Sox can get by with Tavarez, Bryce Cox, or Brendan Donnelly as the closer. Maybe Theo Epstein will ultimately decide that Chad Cordero is worth the hefty price of Wily Mo Pena. Because, in the end, whatever you do to solidify that back end of the bullpen could pay enormous dividends, even if only because it means Papelbon will remain in the rotation.
Truly, much of Papelbon’s success this season will depend on a few factors, including whether he can effectively use his curveball and slider more in a role in which he’ll face repeat batters, as well as how a questionable bullpen will pick him up once he leaves the field. The righthander threw a simulated game in Fort Myers yesterday with the expressed intent of getting of feel for the curve and the slider, pitchers he threw rarely in 2006.
The last time he competed full-time as a starter was in 2005, when in stops at Portland, Pawtucket, and Boston, he was a combined 9-5 with a 2.61 ERA over 21 starts. Last season, his first full one in the bigs, he blossomed into one of the game’s brightest pitching stars with a 35-save season. And now, he’s right back where he started, most people cautiously optimistic that he might be able to harness that success somehow in a starting role, as if anything he’s shown thus far would seem to prove otherwise.
There are guys like Mariano Rivera, who have been quite obviously more successful as a closer than as a starter, for whatever reason. The one time in his career Rivera has ever had an ERA above 3.00 was in 1995 (5.51), when he had a 10-game starting stint. A year later, he found his home as a setup man in the Yankees bullpen. In 1997, he saved 43 games en route to becoming the greatest closer of all time.
Would he be a certain Hall of Famer had he remained in the rotation? That’s impossible to say, but we’ll say it’s doubtful and besides, closers like Rivera who excel for a long period of time are rare in the game today. There are probably very few pitchers who could excel at both roles. Many have done both well (Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield), but to be dominant at both is something that very few pitchers over the years have done well (see, Curt Schilling, 2005), partly based on a repertoire of pitches and party based on the perceived need to have roles defined for everybody on day one of training camp — even if you have zero idea of what that particular player’s strengths are.
Papelbon could be different. Hailed as the next Roger Clemens before last season started, he finished the year as the next Trevor Hoffman. But as valuable as both those guys are, be honest, which would you rather have?
Most projections for Papelbon this season are remaining on the safe side; anywhere from a seven-win season to a 15-win season. Many of your PECOTA (Baseball Prospectus’ Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm) and Bill James projections are also a bit up in the air as there is a varied slate to study, but you don’t really expect them to be rallying for a 22-win, Cy Young season either, do you?
But the fact remains, he could emerge as a somewhat overlooked ace of the staff, with Josh Beckett instead seen as the guy most likely to bust out. Instead, Papelbon is most talked about in terms of returning to the bullpen, not becoming a dominant starter.
In his third season in the game, Clemens put up a 24-4, Cy Young season. Expecting that kind of performance from Papelbon certainly isn’t fair, and truth be told, nor are the Clemens comparisons. But if I had to guess which of the Red Sox starters might win 20 games this season, I’m going with Papelbon based on a track record that seems poised to come to an inevitable fruition this year.
The Red Sox can find another closer, whether it be a guy like Craig Hansen come August, Tavarez in a major upset, or someone like Cordero, a pitcher who isn’t yet on the staff. It’s not always easy, but those guys can be found in one place or another.
Aces aren’t as easy, which is why Boston hasn’t groomed a 20-game winner in its farm system since Clemens. But the potential exists for Papelbon to end that streak. And if it looks like he might accomplish such a feat early on in the season, you can bet there will be only scant few whispers that he should return to the closer’s role.