Nov 05, 2010, 11:07AM

The Red Sox Need to Ditch Closer Jonathan Papelbon

General manager Theo Epstein has a lot of work to do in this off-season, and reluctantly giving David Ortiz one more year in Boston was just the easy part.

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The Boston Red Sox, to no one’s surprise, picked up David Ortiz's $12.5 million club option on Nov. 4. The move was obvious, considering the public relations storm the franchise would’ve suffered had Big Papi been set loose. Yet on an objective level, this wasn’t an easy decision for general manager Theo Epstein. Ortiz has, in the past two seasons, stunk up Fenway Park in April, leading fans and sportswriters to wonder how long it’d be before the palooka was non-tendered. Along with his poor play at the start of the ’09 and ’10 campaigns, recently Ortiz has copped an attitude, demanding more years be added to his contract. He's even strained credulity by claiming he’s still one of the premier hitters in the major leagues. That said, he did hit 32 home runs last year and posted a sufficient OBP of .370. Yet taking into account his drop in production, crummy Aprils, and bad attitude, all while not playing a defensive position, I’m certain 2011 will be his last year in Boston.

There’s less chatter about it, but the situation of declining closer Jonathan Papelbon needs to be addressed. Papelbon's numbers have tanked in the last two years, he wants an undeserved long-term contract, and also sports a bad attitude. There are two key differences, though, between him and Ortiz: Papelbon is not under contract for 2011 and, after blowing a bunch of key games, isn’t particularly popular with Red Sox Nation.
While Ortiz is a disease that will only go away with time, the Paps is treatable. Epstein can either non-tender or trade him, and in my opinion, it will most likely be the former. Papelbon is heading into his third and final year of arbitration, and the general consensus is that he will receive upwards of $12 million, which is extraordinarily pricey for an often ineffective, hot-headed closer. There's also an in-house replacement for him, Daniel Bard, who proved he was ready for the role in 2011 by putting up phenomenal numbers.

The Red Sox bullpen was horrific in 2010, and though it seems counterintuitive, ditching Papelbon will be addition by subtraction. Luckily for Epstein, the free agent market is loaded with relief pitchers, including Scott Downs, Joaquin Benoit, Jon Rauch, and Matt Guerrier. If the Red Sox can stop surrendering runs late in games they’d easily win a playoff berth next season. Some analysts suggest that Bard isn't ready for the closer job, pointing to his lack of MLB service time, but Papelbon hadn't even seen a full season in the majors by the time he replaced the dilapidated Keith Foulke very early in the ’06 season.
The Papelbon and Ortiz situations are very similar, as shown above, but there is one key difference. Ortiz can still produce (just not in April). Even with his flaws, Big Papi drove in 102 runs last year, while Papelbon blew eight saves and had an ERA of nearly 4.00. Non-tendering the self-dubbed Cinco Ocho won't solve all of Boston’s bullpen problems, but it’s a necessary start. Epstein also has to acquire a middle-of-the-order slugger for the lineup. Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford are the two players that bloggers have been talking about. Gonzalez is approaching a huge payday after 2011 that the Padres can't afford and Crawford is already leaving the Rays via free agency. Because only one year remains on his contract, Gonzalez shouldn't command a king’s ransom in the trade market. A package including Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo, and Jed Lowrie should at least pique San Diego’s curiosity. The Angels and Tigers will also woo Crawford, the hot ticket position player on the market, but if Epstein wants him, money won’t be an issue. Boston, facing the likely departure of catcher/slugger Victor Martinez, also needs to fill that hole. Free agent John Buck, who had a fine year with the Blue Jays in ’10, and Angels’ catcher Mike Napoli could be options behind the dish.

It’s said that the Red Sox, decimated by injuries last season, as well as sub-par performances from Josh Beckett and John Lackey, have the most puzzles to solve; yet if Epstein is as canny as his reputation suggests, Boston will be favored to duke it out with the Yankees for the A.L. East division title next year.

  • " If the Red Sox can stop surrendering runs late in games they’d easily win a playoff berth next season" Did you even watch the Red Sox in 2010? Sure late game loses can be discouraging and had we had SF Giants bullpen we may have even been in the playoffs. But the point is the bullpen was not our 2010 weakness. It was injury after injury. Simple as that. Now given our record and that we mathematically had a chance to get the yankees in the final week of the season just proves that a healthy sox is a top contender. Hard to win missing you 1-3 hitters are hurt all season. Now say cut our injury bug by 50%. A normal Beckett and a 2nd season in boston Lackey and come september we'll be contending. A good bullpen wouldnt hurt either but you cannot get rid of Papelbon. Sure we have Bard but who will replace Bard?

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  • And before you Judge Papelbon look at all the top closers careers. They ALL have a year or 2 or 3 in there that don't look so good on paper. Closing has a lot of mental factors. A hurt limping team wont bring as much fire as a first place 2011 team will. Expect to see Papelbon post a 2.00ish era with less than 3 blown saves in 2011

  • You make a lot of valid points. That the Sox were able to win 89 games and sort of stay in contention through September is testimony to both Tito Francona and the team's depth. However, Papelbon is a white-knuckle closer who throws pitch after pitch and has had two consecutive disappointing seasons. So, if Epstein non-tendered him, he'd have about $12 million to build a bullpen behind Bard. I have zero confidence that Papelbon will have a 2.00 ERA next season. Time to cut losses.

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  • Looking at other closer's career's and numbers when trying to predict Papelbon's 2011 is stupid. If you want to accurately guess what he's going to perform like next year, then you should look at his advanced metrics. Although he had what looked like a good 2009, his K/BB dropped from a whopping 9.36 to a pedestrian 3.17 and then in 2010 it dropped again to 2.71. In turn, his BB/9 and WHIP also increased. Another bad sign is that his HR/9 from .52 in 2008, .66 in 2009, and .94 in 2010. His average fastball decreased, too. All signs point to Paps regressing even more in 2011, so I have a feeling that your little hunch is wrong.

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