Papelbon isn't the bullpen problem

BY foxsports • September 9, 2010

Daniel Bard is ready to close for the Boston Red Sox.

His numbers say so. His boss, Theo Epstein, says so.

Bard says so, too.

His exact words on Wednesday at Fenway Park: “I think I’m ready.”

In the midst of their splints-and-crutches summer, the Red Sox can take solace in knowing that they have groomed a ninth-inning heir to Jonathan Papelbon. Bard’s fastball cruises at 98 and 99 miles per hour. Even better, his off-speed stuff has helped him hold hitters to a .167 batting average over his first full season in the big leagues.

So, the Red Sox have an alternative to Papelbon, their closer since 2006.

But it’s lunacy to suggest that they ought to trade Papelbon simply because Bard is ready.

Even the guy in line for a promotion sees that.

“We’ve got a pretty good thing in place, with me and Pap throwing eight and nine with games on the line,” Bard said. “If you’re the Red Sox management, you’re not going to mess with that.”

They shouldn’t.

No matter what the public says.

When not fretting over Tom Brady’s contract, some wards of Red Sox Nation have wondered aloud whether Papelbon’s time in Boston is nearing its end. Sunday’s loss to the White Sox – during which Papelbon failed to complete a five-out save – provided fresh fodder.

There is no denying that Papelbon is enduring his worst major-league season. He has lost six games, a career high. He has blown seven save opportunities, a career high. He has a 3.36 ERA, also his worst mark in Boston.

All this, after an epic, season-ending blown save in the playoffs against the Angels last year.

The financial component must be considered, too. Papelbon could earn more than $11 million next season, after which he will become a free agent. If the Red Sox want to trade him – in order to save money and bring back talent in other areas – this offseason is their last chance to do so.

But that would be foolish, for three main reasons.

• Papelbon, who turns 30 in November, is fully capable of bouncing back to his sub-2.00 ERA form – provided he is healthy.

• The Red Sox are in no position to part with relief pitchers who are capable of getting outs.

• Recent history says it's difficult to get fair value for an expensive closer, even on one-year deal. In exchange for Rafael Soriano — the AL leader with 41 saves — the Braves were only able to obtain middle reliever Jesse Chavez, who has a 6.46 ERA this season and now pitches for the Royals.

Plus, it’s hard to find pitchers for whom outs 25, 26 and 27 are (generally) routine. Papelbon isn’t perfect. But he does the job much more often than not.

I asked him which pitcher was more prepared to close in the big leagues – himself in ’06, or Bard right now.

“I think I was, because I’d done it before,” he replied. “I’d closed before (in college). I’m not taking anything away from Daniel – Daniel’s a phenomenal pitcher – but in a closer’s role, there’s still a question mark. He’s never done it before. There’s nothing similar to closing.

“In my opinion – I’ve started, relieved and closed, all in the big leagues – and closing, by far, is the hardest. And I’ve done all three. To me, it’s been the biggest challenge.”

The Red Sox have become quite familiar with challenges in 2010. But a major misconception is that injuries are solely to blame for their demise.

Yes, the A-list D-list has been the primary cause of their early departure from the American League postseason picture. But bullpen woes are high on the list of grievances, right up there with Josh Beckett’s 5.91 ERA.

Three of the seven relievers on the Opening Day roster – Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Ramirez, Scott Schoeneweis – are no longer with the organization because of their underperformance.

Take away Bard and Papelbon, and Boston’s bullpen had a 5.18 ERA entering Wednesday.

Sure, Bard can handle the ninth. But then who would pitch the eighth?

It certainly wouldn’t be someone from the underwhelming corps of middle relievers that has squandered far too many leads this year.

“If we had decent performance from one of any three or four pitchers coming in to the year – who had good track records – we’d be in a different spot,” Epstein said. “But we had a number of guys in middle relief underperform. We didn’t do a good enough job building that part of the club. We lost a few games as a result of it. It’s certainly an area we’ll look to improve.”

Epstein knows he must add relief pitchers. If Papelbon is dealt – without getting a similarly talented reliever in return – there would be another item on the shopping list.

Red Sox relievers rank among the bottom third of major-league bullpens in strikeouts. It doesn’t take a room of New England baseball scholars to tell you that swing-and-miss stuff is helpful at Fenway.

(On that subject, did I mention that Papelbon averages more strikeouts per inning than Bard? He does. Barely.)

To his credit, Epstein realizes that too much has been made of Papelbon’s struggles this year.

“I think sometimes Jonathan suffers from setting such a high standard earlier in his career,” the general manager said. “People like to look at his performance this year – the last couple years – instead of just saying, ‘He’s a really good closer. He helps them win a lot of games.’ They match it up, number for number, against what he did his first few years. That’s not a fair standard.

“Look at some of the things he did early on. They were historic, unmatched. It’s hard to expect someone to replicate that. … I think that’s sometimes hard to grasp. He’s still pretty good.”

When I asked Papelbon for his thoughts on the matter, he said he has “of course” heard the speculation surrounding his future in Boston. He “wouldn’t be surprised by anything,” including a trade. He praised Bard for having “great stuff” and being a “great setup man.”

But if you thought Papelbon might admit that the Red Sox would be better off without him … well … he didn’t.

In fact, he offered a food/cultural analogy to illustrate his point.

“Do you bring the recipe that’s been a hit at supper club the last six years, or do you take a chance with a new recipe that might not work and nobody might like?” he asked. “I don’t know, man. That’s all (stuff) in the future, man. If I could predict the future, I wouldn’t be sitting here in this clubhouse giving you this interview.”

I can’t say that I’ve been to a supper club. But I have seen Papelbon pitch.

It’s time for a new theme song: Don’t ship him out of Boston.

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