Part 8 of a 10-day series on Red Sox questions that will be answered during spring training.
BOSTON -- It would have been a perfect storm for Jonathan Papelbon, to become a free agent just as Mariano Rivera’s unparalleled career as Yankees closer came to an end.
And had he gone to the Bombers, it would have represented the most jarring defection to pinstripes since Johnny Damon/Demon, although Papelbon would have been forced to update his choice of music: “Shipping Up to Boston” just wouldn’t have sounded right when the bullpen door opened in the Bronx.
But Papelbon, eligible for free agency after the season, can probably delete that scenario from his iPad. Rivera, at age 41, signed a two-year contract to remain with the Yankees, who would have preferred to tack on just a year but were left little choice when the Red Sox made a surprise offer. And then, last month, Brian Cashman put a potential replacement for Rivera in place when he signed former Rays closer Rafael Soriano to a three-year, $35 million deal.
Suddenly, whatever road Papelbon was planning to take out of town, if it came to that, won’t be the Deegan Expressway.
The assumption that Papelbon will be headed elsewhere persists, for the following reasons:
* At $12.5 million, Papelbon has reached what many believe is the ceiling for what the Sox are willing to pay for a closer.
* Daniel Bard, whose 97.5 mph average velocity for his fastball was the highest in the big leagues last season, showed all the signs of an elite closer in the making, one who would come at a much lower rate than Papelbon would command.
* And then, the clincher: When the White Sox nontendered Bobby Jenks, the Red Sox pounced, signing the 29-year-old right-hander to a two-year, $12 million deal. Not only did the Sox have a closer-in-waiting in Bard, they had a fallback plan in place.
A corollary question has now been raised: Will Papelbon even get to free agency in a Red Sox uniform, or will the Sox trade him before then? Especially since to get draft choices back for him if he signs elsewhere as a free agent, they would have to offer him arbitration, and risk the possibility of pushing his salary even higher.
Here’s why a Papelbon trade doesn’t make sense. He is still just 30 and has saved 35 or more games in each of the last five seasons, including 37 in 2010, an otherwise down year for him. His shoulder is strong, his velocity has hardly diminished, and he can still throw his splitter with devastating effectiveness. He’s still striking out better than a batter per inning, and the line separating a spectacular season from a subpar one came down to, essentially, a handful of pitches over a few nights. Anticipating him to come back with a vengeance is hardly a reach.
Bard, for all his upside, is still untested as a closer, the greatest unknown not how he performs when he is at his best, but how he will cope with failure, still the acid test for the great closers.
And Jenks, despite back-to-back 40-save seasons, has shown much more slippage than Papelbon, and has had elbow issues that raise a red flag.
The Red Sox enter the season as strong contenders in the AL East; it’s hard to imagine they would deal their closer at the trading deadline unless he stumbles badly. And if that happens, there are likely to be fewer teams willing to take on what would be an expensive rental.
The prediction here is that come September, Papelbon will still be closing, although he is the most obvious candidate to get the David Ortiz treatment this season: A bad game or two, and he’ll be hearing the calls for Bard or Jenks.
What do you think? What's your prediction for who will be closing games for the Red Sox come September? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.
Coming Thursday: How important is Daisuke Matsuzaka to the Red Sox rotation depth?