Coming into the year it seemed as though the smart money was on 2011 being Jonathan Papelbon’s last year for the Red Sox. After quickly establishing himself as one of the few truly elite relievers in the game, Papelbon had spent the previous two years being merely ‘good’. Under the intense gaze of Red Sox fandom, being ‘good’ in the 9th inning was not going to cut it for a pitcher who had earlier shown himself to be capable to performances comparable to Mariano Rivera.
Once the Red Sox brought Daniel Bard into the fold, it was assume that an expensive and declining closer was a needless luxury for the team. But, as so often happens in baseball, the reality wouldn’t match the narrative and 2011 has perhaps been Papelbon’s best year yet as the chart below shows:
|FIP||Strikeout %||Walk %|
As the numbers show, the key to Papelbon’s resurgence has been the always winning combination of boosting his strikeout rate while slicing his walk rate. An expensive closer may be an indulgence, but it is an indulgence the Red Sox of all teams can surely fit into their budget, particularly if Papelbon can continue to at least approximate his numbers of this year.
The most obvious recent comparison for Papelbon’s free agency is K-Rod’s 3 year, $37m deal with the Mets following his record breaking 2008 season. Papelbon will be 31 at the start of his next deal but him being older than K-Rod is mitigated somewhat by Papelbon appearing to be the better pitcher heading into free agency.
The clubs that can afford Papelbon’s monetary demands (he’s making $12m this year and will understandably be looking for a decent raise) is short enough but we can also discount some of those teams, such as the Angels and Rangers, who have the funds but not the need. By my reckoning that leaves us with the following handful of possibilities:
Already been burned once by the K-Rod deal, unlikely to go back to that well.
Have some good bullpen options already but Papelbon does seem like the sort of player Ruben Amaro would love to bring aboard.
Have almost no long term money committed but this doesn’t seem like the sort of move Alex Anthopoulos would make.
This actually looks like exactly the sort of needless move the Orioles could make.
Ozzie + Pap = Fireworks
More likely to just pick up Jose Valverde’s option.
Until another team makes a run at Papelbon, it’s hard to label anyone other than the Red Sox as the best and most likely fit for his services in 2012 and beyond. My guess would be something like £27.5m over two years with a team option which is obviously an overpay for any closer, but would provide the Red Sox with a reasonable amount of certainty at the back of the pen.