Arbitration looms for Papelbon, Red Sox

Jonathan Papelbon and the Boston Red Sox have not talked about a long-term contract this offseason, the closer said, and the two sides appear to once again be headed toward salary arbitration.

Papelbon, who last offseason was eligible for salary arbitration for the first time, agreed to a one-year deal for $6.25 million, more than eight times his 2008 salary of $775,000.

The contract was the largest ever for a pitcher -- starter or reliever -- eligible for arbitration for the first time, and was the third-highest for any first-time eligible player, topped only by the $10 million the Phillies awarded slugger Ryan Howard in 2008 and the $7.4 million the Marlins awarded first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who is now with Tigers, in 2007.

Now Papelbon is in line for another big raise, one that almost certainly will make him the eighth Red Sox player to be paid $9 million or more in 2010. Seven big league closers have contracts for $10 million or more. It's reasonable to expect that Papelbon will join them.

"Heck yeah, as far as what me and my brain are thinking,'' Papelbon said, "but I haven't even sat down with my agents [Seth and Sam Levinson] yet. We don't even have a number in place. There haven't been any discussions between me and the Red Sox and my agents at all.''

This week, eligible players were permitted to file for salary arbitration. On Jan. 20, clubs and players will present salary numbers, and if an agreement cannot be struck, a hearing is held in which an arbitrator chooses one number or the other.

Since Theo Epstein became general manager of the Red Sox after the 2002 season, no player has gone to a hearing. Last winter, Epstein locked up much of the team's homegrown talent to multiyear deals, committing nearly $112 million to Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester. There was one notable omission: Papelbon.

It was not for a lack of trying. The Red Sox last winter offered their closer a two-year deal for about $14.75 million, within a couple of hundred thousand dollars of what Papelbon was seeking, according to a source close to the negotiations. "I ix-nayed their offer,'' Papelbon said.

As Papelbon's salary climbs ever higher, he understands that negotiations might turn more contentious.

"The thing they'll probably pull is tell us, 'We've got an up-and-coming guy in [Daniel] Bard,' this and that. That's fine with me," Papelbon said. "That's what they have to do in this cat-and-mouse game. But when you look at what I've done so far, you can't compare it to many other closers besides Mo [Rivera].''

Since 2006, when Papelbon became the Boston closer, eight pitchers have had seasons of 35 saves or more, a strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio of 10 or more, and an ERA lower than 2.50. Papelbon has done it three times, and he would have been 4-for-4 except his K/IP ratio was 9.9 in 2006. This past season, while saving 38 regular-season games, he blew just three saves, and he has just 17 career blown saves, an 89 percent conversion rate.

But there were a couple of worrisome issues in 2009: His walks tripled to 24 from eight the year before, a big reason his strikeout-to-walk ratio dropped to a career-worst 3.17 while his WHIP (walks plus hits per nine innings pitched) climbed to a career-high 1.47.

But there was nothing, Papelbon believes, that should keep him from leaping into the salary class of the game's best closers.

"My whole thing is consistency,'' he said. "I'm not one of these guys with a sub-2 ERA one year and a high-3 the next. My whole thing in all of this is the environment you pitch in. Wouldn't you want a guy to pitch in Boston, New York and Philadelphia who you know has consistently had just three or four blown saves a year. That's a rarity in itself.

"If in the beginning of the year, you're in Boston or New York or Philadelphia, and somebody tells you this guy is going to blow only three or four saves all year, who else are you going to get to do that, you know?

"Don't get me wrong. This kid [Bard] has got talent through the roof. If I had anything to do with it, I'd want Bard in my 'pen, to set me up. But that's part of the cat-and-mouse game, too.''

Papelbon, who will be eligible for free agency after the 2011 season, said he is willing to keep going year to year until then.

"At the same time, I'm not afraid to show that, hey, I want to be with the Red Sox [in a multiyear deal]. I'd love to have that sense of security of being with a team and knowing, 'Hey, they want me, and I want them, let's have a happy marriage.'

"But what do I have to give up to be in that marriage? Understand, I'm in the prime of my career. Why would I give up something? I'd give up something if it's fair to both sides, but I want to do things for my fellow closers, just like Mo paved the way for me. I want every closer out there, man, to get every penny they deserve.''

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.