Bon voyage

I’m shocked.

No, really. I am. I was never one of those supposed crazed individuals who thought Jonathan Papelbon would be back in the closer’s role by Opening Day, even if it took me hinting more than a month ago that Papelbon would be back in the bullpen by Opening Day.

Maybe by July, the majority conceded, but never by Opening Day.

You’re right. I was completely daft to say such things.

In any case, the Red Sox just announced that, lo and behold, Jonathan Papelbon is headed back to the bullpen as closer, effective immediately. This could be a direct effect of Mike Timlin’s injury, since this might not have been necessary had that not happened.

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Apparently the shoulder concerns that plagued Papelbon at the end of last season, sparking his move to the rotation, are a thing of the past. Rumors of the move percolated all afternoon, and manager Terry Francona confirmed it just a short while ago after his team’s exhibition game against the Phillies.
Papelbon gives the Red Sox a dominant presence at the back end of the bullpen, that lights-out pitcher that can, much like Mariano Rivera over the past decade, effectively turn a nine-inning game into an eight-inning game with overpowering 1-2-3 final frames.
That being said, I hate this move.
It’s not just because I now have to scrap my batch of preseason predictions for next week, in which I go out on a limb and call Papelbon to win the Cy Young Award, but…well, OK it’s mostly just that.
Still, is the team better with Papelbon closing out games as opposed to a closer by committee? Undeniably. But would the potential exist for the Red Sox to be even better with him in the rotation as part of a dominant foursome? Guess we’ll never know, but there were a lot of signs to certainly think so.
As stable as Boston’s bullpen looks now, the rotation looks all the less so. Curt Schilling has looked great so far this spring, but Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett, for all the vast possibilities that exist, have yet to prove they can perform at the elite level the AL East demands. In a lot of ways, Papelbon stabilized the unknowns in the rotation with a potential dominant force at the back end, the glue that connected the dots between dominant and adequate. Now when you compare the pitching staff to last year’s, Matsuzaka is all that has really changed it. That’s not to deny his added importance, just a warning that at some point one of these guys is going to go down, and the rotation could be as ill-equipped as it was last year in plugging in guys to spot start throughout the season. Or did you block Jason Johnson from your memory?
Let’s not forget, Schilling, Beckett, and Tim Wakefield were in the rotation last season too. Now the only new face you’ve got on a team that finished third a season ago is Matsuzaka. As great as he might turn out to be, the back end has been significantly weakened. You’re now looking at Julian Tavarez to be your fifth starter, or at least until Jon Lester is ready. And that might not be until later this summer. Can Matt Clement get healthy quick enough? Did you ever think you’d ask that even?
Either this was in the cards since Day One (notice Papelbon came in “relief” of every game but one in Grapefruit League action) with the Red Sox hinting all along that he was an option still, or the fact that Theo Epstein and Co. did not spend at least a little of the $150 million this past offseason on a closer finally came to mind. Once “Joel Pineiro” and “closer” were mentioned in the same breath, we should have known this day was going to come.
According to Schilling, Papelbon wanted to make this move, but would he have made it so soon or willingly had the Red Sox come up with a competent solution to close? Papelbon is doing this because it’s what the team needs him to do, but is it necessarily what’s best for the team?
There may be a few less ND’s in the starters’ resumes with Papelbon back there, but how many fewer wins are they sacrificing without him in there with them? In Papelbon, the Sox have the makings of an ace seemingly ready to bust out. And now he’s in the bullpen, where they feel he’s best suited for their needs.
Let’s not definitely take that as an assessment of his talent more than the Red Sox’ failure to stockpile some more of it in the bullpen.

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