"I don't know what happened there at the Nationals, but he was a great guy and we would welcome him back with open arms," Ortiz told ESPN Deportes before the Red Sox faced the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday night. "And we need help in the bullpen. We definitely do."
Papelbon requested and received his release from the Washington Nationals last Saturday, making him a free agent. The Red Sox have expressed interest in the 35-year-old reliever, who also has been linked to the Chicago Cubs and likely is getting calls from several other playoff contenders.
In addition to a stretch of five consecutive dreadful appearances in which he gave up nine runs on nine hits and five walks in 3 1/3 innings and was replaced as the Nationals' closer by the recently acquired Mark Melancon, Papelbon's attitude in the clubhouse had become "toxic," according to one National League scout.
But the Red Sox know Papelbon well. They drafted him in 2003, developed him in their farm system and won a World Series with him as their closer in 2007. Papelbon is the organization's all-time saves leader with 219 over seven seasons from 2005 to '11. And although manager John Farrell has described the high-strung Papelbon as "a unique guy in many ways," Papelbon retains a strong relationship with Farrell, second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Ortiz.
"He started here and the fans love him," Ortiz told ESPN Deportes. "Jonathan is like a brother to me. He's a great guy and an amazing teammate. His teammates were always first to him. It would be fabulous to have him back."
The Red Sox continue to sort out roles in their bullpen. Although Craig Kimbrel is cemented as the closer, Papelbon could be a potential solution in the eighth inning, where the Sox have been seeking a replacement for setup man Koji Uehara, who is sidelined indefinitely by a right pectoral strain.
On Tuesday, Farrell said he has reached out to Papelbon to discuss a return to Boston, a sign that the Red Sox believe his recent struggles on the mound in Washington aren't indicative of an irreversible decline.
"There's no question he's a different pitcher now than nine years ago," Farrell said, alluding to a decrease in average fastball velocity from 95.0 mph when Papelbon left the Red Sox after the 2011 season to 90.9 mph this year. "He's evolved as more of a quote-unquote pitcher rather than relying solely on velocity and a fastball that he would attack with. With the exception of a stretch in July where maybe the performance was less than what Pap has been maybe accustomed to, he's been an effective pitcher."
In 37 appearances with the Nationals this season, Papelbon posted a 4.37 ERA with 31 strikeouts and 14 walks in 35 innings.