The future of Jonathan Papelbon

Jonathan Papelbon just set the Red Sox record for saves with 133 for his career, passing Hall of Famer Bob Stanley at just 28 years old. The other numbers are pretty amazing too; Paps owns a 1.83 ERA. For his career. He’s struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings. For his career. In 25 innings of postseason play, he has 7 saves and has yet to give up a single run. The man just thrives on pressure situations in the pressure cooker of pressure cookers. And the accolades just keep piling up. He narrowly missed the AL Rookie of the Year in 2006, but he was just selected for his fourth All-Star appearance in his fourth full season. He is already recognized as one of the most dominant closers in baseball, and his dream of becoming the next Mariano Rivera appears to be coming true.

But there are some nagging issues as well; there’s the “weak” shoulder that keeps Paps from pitching more than 2-3 games in a row. The Sox carefully monitor his outings and innings, so as not to tweak that shoulder. It’s flared up more than once, taking him out of the action down the stretch, and it’s reason for pause in offering him any long-term deal. Then there are his troubling 2009 trends: despite the low ERA and high percentage of converted saves (20 of 22), the strikeouts are down and the walks are way up, resulting in a 4.12 FIP. Despite a favorable .289 BABIP, Papelbon is also giving up more hits than in any previous year. His fastball velocity seems fairly stable, but he’s leaning on his slurve more and avoiding the split-finger pitch which was pretty successful earlier in his career. Opponents’ contact rate is up, his first pitch strikes are are down slightly, and generally the trends are in the wrong direction. Could we be seeing him flame out in slow motion?

Papelbon has made it clear that he wants to be paid as the best closer ever, and as he approaches free agency after 2011, it has raised some questions about how much the saber-savvy Red Sox are willing to pay for a closer. Rivera makes $15M/year, Brad Lidge is at $12.5M and Francisco Rodriguez makes $12.3M per annum for the Mets. Is Papelbon really worth that kind of money with those limitations? Fangraphs lists Papelbon’s approximate free agent value from 2006-2008 at about $11.5M per year. With the appearance of hard-throwing Daniel Bard on the scene, it’s tempting to see him as a future closer. A recent blog post raises the question Red Sox Nation would rather not consider: trade Papelbon?

First, don’t misquote me: I want to keep Papelbon closing for us. When you have a player who is historically good, you keep him; and just because other pitchers throw hard doesn’t mean they can do what Paps can do. But I do think the right course of action is NOT to offer him the long-term extension this year, and see how he bounces back the rest of this year and next. I’m not advocating trading him now, especially during a pennant race, but the Sox will of course place a dollar value on Paps and offer him a deal accordingly. Rivera signed a record 4-year, $40M deal back in 2001, and Papelbon will expect something equally record-breaking; accounting for inflation, could he be a $20M/year closer in 2012? If we’re talking about a 3-year, $60M contract then, we might have at least to consider alternative options. What do you think? How much is too much for Papelbon?


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