Papelbon pitching for contract bonanza

Jonathan Papelbon, speaking over the phone from the Red Sox’s spring home in Fort Myers, Fla., can barely contain his excitement.

“I’ll tell you what – the ball is coming out of my hand this spring so far better than it ever has in any other spring training,” Papelbon says.

If this is indeed his final season in Boston, Papelbon plans to make it memorable. He is a potential free agent on a mission, and everything is aligned for him to succeed.

Whether he hits the jackpot on the open market is another matter. “The days of huge closers’ contracts probably are behind us,” one general manager says.

But bet against Pap at your own risk.

The Red Sox’s failure to make the postseason gave him an extra month to recuperate for the first time since 2006. Papelbon notes a tangible difference in the way his body responded, saying that his arm is in “phenomenal” shape and that his legs already are “underneath” him.

He is talking up his slider, saying his split “is right where I want it,” vowing to regain the finish on his mid-90s fastball.

And, of course, he is certain to get ample save opportunities pitching for the Red Sox, a team that many expect to reach the postseason, if not win the World Series.

The Sox’s offense will provide leads. The team’s set-up corps will protect them. And Papelbon will take the ball in the ninth, hellbent on regaining his form from 2006 to ’08, when he was practically untouchable.

“I know it’s early in the spring, man. I realize that,” Papelbon says. “But it’s good to get off on the right foot, get that core delivery started. Everything is just starting off from a good base.”

Papelbon, mind you, wasn’t bad last season. He just wasn’t as dominant as he was in ’06, when he had a 0.92 ERA; in ’07, when he averaged a career-high 13 strikeouts per nine innings; or in ’08, when he issued only eight walks the entire season.

His ERA more than doubled from ’09 to ’10, jumping from 1.85 to 3.90, but his rates of hits, strikeouts and walks were practically the same. He had five awful games, five stinkers in which he allowed a combined 18 runs in 3 2/3 innings. In his other 60 games, his ERA was 1.56.

“Obviously for me, it’s a season that I’m not going to accept,” Papelbon says. “I didn’t have a good year by my standards. I know it sounds like a cliché, but I was trying to do too much.

“You try to find answers too quick. You overdo things. You overanalyze. When you do that, it hurts you more than it helps you. It backfires sometimes. That definitely happened with me last year.”

Papelbon’s average fastball velocity was 94.7 mph, matching his career mark, according to PitchFx data on But he concedes that he lost life on his heater as he tinkered with his delivery, and maybe he lost confidence in it, too – he threw a career-low 69.5 percent fastballs, and a career-high 21.2 percent splits.

This season, Papelbon wants it all – his old fastball, plus an improved slider and rejuvenated split.

“No question, I’m a guy who pitches off my fastball,” Papelbon says. “But I will say this: You will see me this year throwing a lot more sliders and a lot more splits.

“Before, I didn’t have those pitches the way I have ‘em now. This year, I feel totally different about throwing them in any count, any situation. I feel I can throw them on 0-0 or 3-2 counts.”

If he puts it all together, he will go roaring into the open market, a free agent with a portfolio exceeded by only one current closer — the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, who last winter signed a two-year, $30 million deal.

Papelbon, who will pitch this season at 30, is the only closer in the majors with five consecutive seasons of 35 or more saves. Don’t like that stat? OK, his 2.22 ERA is the lowest career mark of any pitcher who was active last season and has worked at least 300 innings (Rivera’s career ERA is 2.23; he has worked 1,150 innings to Papelbon’s 365).

Then there is the postseason.

Papelbon holds the major-league record for most consecutive scoreless innings to start a postseason career — 25. His streak ended with an ugly blown save in Game 3 of the 2009 Division Series, the final game of an Angels sweep. In the LCS and World Series, Papelbon is 6-for-6 in save opportunities with 14 2/3 scoreless innings.

All of this, of course, will mean a lot less if Papelbon regresses this season. Next year’s free-agent class figures to be deep in closers – the Padres’ Heath Bell, Phillies’ Brad Lidge, Twins’ Joe Nathan and Mets’ Francisco Rodriguez all could hit the market, as could the Yankees’ Rafael Soriano in the unlikely event that he is willing to forfeit the $25 million in the final two years in his contract. A number of lesser free agents – the Dodgers’ Jonathan Broxton, Reds’ Francisco Cordero, Cardinals’ Ryan Franklin – also could be available.

Papelbon believes it’s “50-50” that he will stay with the Red Sox, “a tossup.” He has hit the jackpot resisting multi-year contracts and going year-to-year in arbitration; his $12 million salary in 2010 will be the highest ever for an arbitration-eligible pitcher. Papelbon, however, fears his approach created the wrong impression. He says it’s “a big misconception” that he does not want to stay in Boston.

The bigger question, Papelbon knows, is whether the Red Sox will want to invest big money in a closer; the answer likely is no. The team is grooming a much less expensive right-hander, Daniel Bard, for the ninth inning. They also bought another potential alternative during the off-season, signing free-agent righty Bobby Jenks to a two-year, $12 million contract.

“Whatever happens, happens. I don’t have much control over that,” Papelbon says, referring to the market in general. “I’m worried about putting up numbers and trying to be the best I can be at my craft, be part of the equation for a championship club again.”

He needs a big season. He can feel one coming.

Papelbon says it again:

“The ball is just exploding out of my hand.”