Friday, April 24, 2009

The 800-Pound Gorilla in the Bullpen

(Allow me to preface this post by saying that I can't take full credit for this idea. This was born out of a conversation Sam and I had over the winter, and it's taken some time to develop. But the biggest claim in this post, and it's overall theme about the above closer's future in Boston, came from Sam originally. I'm just enunciating it further here.)

When Jonathan Papelbon hit arbitration this past winter, we knew the dollar figure would probably be pretty high for his 2009 salary. After all, not every closer averages 38 saves with a 1.84 ERA during their first three full professional seasons. The dollar figure wound up being $6.25 million, the third-highest ever for a player in his first year of arbitration.

Like so many other teams, the Red Sox have been trying to lock up their young players to team-friendly extensions that buy out arbitration and at least the first year of free agency. They were successful in the offseason with Dustin Pedroia (6 years, $40.5 million, 2015 option), Jon Lester (5 years, $30 million, 2014 option) and, while not really so "young" anymore at 30, Kevin Youkilis (4 years, $41.25 million, 2013 option). When Papelbon and his agents were approached with a similar package, it didn't exactly go the way the Red Sox envisioned.

Boston's offer was, according to Papelbon, "so far off" that it wasn't even considered. When Jon Heyman hypothetically queried Papelbon if he'd take $10 million a year (which I'm fairly positive is the max the Red Sox would want to pay him right now), he gave a non-answer. He's consistently stated that, as a "gambling man," he wants to go year-to-year as opposed to signing an extension. Papelbon thinks very highly of himself, and believes it's his duty to set the market for closers.

If this holds true, and Papelbon looks to go year-to-year, his 2010 salary will likely be around $10 million, and 2011 could approach $15 million, which is what the game's highest-paid closer, Mariano Rivera, will make this year. If Papelbon duplicates the success of the past three years over the next three, he'll assuredly be rewarded with the biggest contract ever for a closer.

There's no way, with how the Red Sox system of valuation works, that they'll ever pay someone who pitches around 60 innings per year anything close to $15 million, let alone whatever crazy number will come up in a free agent contract. There is simply no way. This leads me to my point, and it's something I haven't heard or read anyone in the mainstream media discuss directly:

Unless Papelbon and his representation drastically change course, there's a more than plausible chance the Red Sox trade their popular, All-Star closer before he hits free agency. The Red Sox won't be the ones giving Papelbon that record-shattering contract, and the return in a trade will be much, much greater than the two draft picks.

Blasphemy? Hardly. I'm not even sure how much the Red Sox actually want Papelbon to sign a long-term deal. His shoulder broke down near the end of the 2006 season, and even though he's done a phenomenal job keeping that shoulder strong since, it's hard to overlook that going forward. If you look at the way he's pitched this year, his efficiency has gone out the window and he's become over-reliant on his fastball. What the hell happened to that awesome splitter, anyway? The results have been good, but all the sudden he's become an adventure to get those results.

For all his hype, and all his success in the postseason, and all his status as the most fun member of team with Manny gone, when I watch him pitch now I have to ask myself: Is this really the guy I want the Red Sox to commit to long-term? Is there ANY closer that deserves the kind of money and years he'll be seeking in negotiations? The answer to both questions is no.

Billy Beane made clear in "Moneyball" his disdain for closers as overvalued, injury-prone commodities that he could trade for what he believed to be more useful pieces. He's included incumbent closers Billy Taylor, Billy Koch and Huston Street in deals to pick up other talent, and then use internal candidates or cheaper free agents as closers. I have no doubt Theo Epstein subscribes to a similar theory, and might get a chance to put it to good use.

Trading Papelbon, while still and his prime and not causing a fuss amongst the clubhouse (which was most of the reason why both Nomar and Manny were shipped out) could go down as one of the most unpopular moves in club history if or when it is made. That is, unless the Sox get something of significant value in return. And I believe teams will be willing to pay top dollar for even just one year of Papelbon's services.

With several key hitters set to become free agents over the next two winters (Mike Lowell and Jason Bay, in particular) the Red Sox will have to think about ways to address those needs. Would the Red Sox be able to acquire a big hitter if they made Papelbon the centerpiece of a deal and threw in one or two other top prospects? I think so. Beane did that with Street last offseason and got Matt Holliday, and Street was coming off his most inconsistent season yet. So you have to like Boston's chances there. What if Albert Pujols, or Ryan Howard, or Prince Fielder were to become available? Wouldn't Papelbon, Lars Anderson and another solid prospect get it done for one of those guys?

I'm getting way ahead of myself. But the reality of this situation is closer than you might think. I highly doubt the Red Sox would ever trade Papelbon during a season, even if he was in a walk year. But the next two winters are distinct possibilities, and I believe the club will entertain offers if no extension is hammered out before arbitration numbers are exchanged.

Again, unless Papelbon changes his tune and becomes more receptive towards a team-friendly extension, the Red Sox would be stupid to just let him walk after six seasons. It won't happen. Besides, there's this closer in Pawtucket who struck out the side on nine pitches the other night. You may have heard of him from somewhere.

And if that kid can dominate in the majors as he has in the minors, well, maybe putting Papelbon on the block won't be so far-fetched.

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