Moment of truth for Papelbon, Red Sox

No matter what happens between Ryan Madson and the Phillies, the fallout will be felt all the way to Fenway, where the Red Sox will suddenly have to ask a hard question: is Jonathan Papelbon worth keeping at, say, $14 million a year?

The likelihood is that ownership says yes, especially since Papelbon is coming off his best season, is very much in his prime (age 31) and his reputation is intact. The right-hander was not connected to the chicken-eating, beer-drinking cult that brought down Terry Francona. But that’s not to say Papelbon’s return is guaranteed, especially if the Sox factor in Daniel Bard, who’s completed a three-year apprenticeship as Boston’s next closer. It’s up to GM Ben Cherington to decide whether Bard, going into his age-27 season, is finally ready for the ninth inning.

First things first: Madson’s proposed deal with the Phillies will be worth an estimated $11 million per — assuming it gets finalized. That means Papelbon, a superior reliever with better career numbers, will be entitled to a minimum of $13 million a year. If he can tempt another team into a bidding war, that figure could climb as high as $14 million.

The Sox are one of the few clubs capable of writing that kind of check, but Cherington has chosen not to use the team’s wealth to head Papelbon off at the pass. In fact, the GM spoke of the “risk” and the “difficult” nature of negotiating with a closer who will be pursued by teams in both leagues — as opposed to David Ortiz, whose job search will be confined to the AL.

In other words, the Sox are fully expecting Papelbon to explore the going rate for an elite closer. Unlike CC Sabathia, who really didn’t want to leave the Yankees — and was therefore receptive to the team’s 11th-hour attempt to keep him — Papelbon is already beyond the Sox’s clutches. He’s resisted signing long-term contracts throughout his career, going year-to-year, so he could finally be unleashed as a free agent.

“(There are) more unknowns about what’s out there … when you get into free agency, there’s that sort of bilateral risk,” Cherington told reporters on Wednesday. “The risk for the player is that the team goes in a different direction. The risk for the team is the player goes in a different direction. Those things can happen fast sometimes.”

Papelbon’s drive for top dollar will be somewhat undermined by the fact the Yankees aren’t shopping. And the Mets, who desperately need a closer, are marshaling their post-Madoff resources to sign Jose Reyes. Both teams are off the list. The Dodgers, still in bankruptcy, aren’t in a position to pay Papelbon what he’s worth; the same goes for the Mariners, Blue Jays and Twins.

The Marlins, however, seem ready to take a run at every breathing free agent. The Rangers are an option, too, if they move Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation. The most intriguing possibility — and the one most threatening to the Red Sox — is the Phillies, who would turn their gaze to Papelbon if the deal for Madson vaporizes. That’s assuming, of course, Philadelphia would be willing to surrender a first-round draft pick. But in Papelbon they’d be getting a closer who in the last three years has averaged more strikeouts with a lower WHIP than Madson.

Whether the Phillies want to pay $2 million to $3 million a year more than what they’d tentatively agreed upon with Madson remains to be seen, especially since they’re trying to lock up Jimmy Rollins, too.

The Sox are probably more motivated to win the bidding war — and for that Papelbon can thank Bard, whose dreadful performance in September will make it next to impossible for Boston to trust him. Although Bard performed respectably against the Yankees, holding them to a .156 average this season — make no mistake, that counts for plenty in Boston — the right-hander couldn’t get anyone out in the final month. He was 0-4 with a 10.64 ERA.

It’s true, Papelbon has the blood of Game 162 on his hands — he blew the save against the Orioles that finished off the Sox’s historic collapse. But his on-field value has never been higher. We’ll see whether Papelbon uses that leverage simply to squeeze the Sox for more money, or is really ready to walk.

The emotional ties on both sides that make it hard to envision a divorce. One American League talent evaluator said in Papelbon, the Red Sox have, “a known element.” But the rules all are subject to change during free agency — when, as Tony Soprano once noted, “it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.”

NEWS ITEM: Jorge Posada looking for another contract, another team.

The veteran catcher told reporters Wednesday night before his foundation’s annual dinner that he could envision himself playing in 2012, even though, “I don’t think there’s even a percentage of a chance that I can come back (to the Yankees)."

Instead, Posada said his agent has heard from 5-6 teams since the end of the season and is open-minded enough to accept a reduced role — at least in theory.

“If I have to be a backup catcher, I can do that,” he said. “I can play first, I can come off the bench."

Posada would be wise to reconsider — and, in fact, might just do that after spending the winter at home with his family. By January, he’ll hopefully have come to his senses and realize retirement is his best option, certainly the most graceful. There’s nothing left for Posada to accomplish with, say, the Giants, Marlins, Rays or Orioles, other than to spend 100-plus games on the bench for (maybe) $1 million.

Posada has been an integral part of five world championship teams. He’s been a Yankee for his entire career. He’s a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate, too: During the 20-year period from 1990 to 2010, Posada’s OPS-plus of 121 ranks second only to Mike Piazza’s 142 among catchers.

Just as important, Posada left New York riding a wave of popularity, especially after hitting .429 against the Tigers in the Division Series. What experience in 2012 could possibly top that?