Getting Closer to Closure on a Closer

Jonathan Papelbon

Jonathan Papelbon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

THE PAPELBON PARADOX:
Since Jonathan Papelbon left the Red Sox in the winter of 2011 the closer role has been a tangled mess. Since then, Bobby Jenks, Alfredo Aceves, Andrew Bailey, Mark Melancon and Joel Hanrahan have been on the list of players the Red Sox have thought could be the man to shut the door at the end of games as their primary closer. They have traded away a handful of prospects and flushed millions of dollars to this point. It is fair to ask, should the Red Sox have tried harder to keep Papelbon?

So how have the long list of closers fared in the position over the course of a season and a third? In a total of 74 chances (57 in 2012, 17 in 2013) to earn a save only 46 times (35 in 2012, 11 in 2013) did the Red Sox actually do it. That leaves 28 blown saves by Red Sox closers since Papelbon left. Meanwhile, since signing with the Phillies before the 2012 season, Papelbon has had 53 opportunities to earn the save. Out of those 53 opportunities, 49 times he has gotten the save, blowing it only 4 times. The Red Sox, without Papelbon, are 7 times more likely to blow a save at the current pace.

With that stat in mind, the Red Sox only won 69 games in 2012. Partially due to the lack of production in September following the Nick Punto (Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford) trade, and partially because they blew 22 saves last year. If you were to insert Papelbons’ stats from last year (only blowing 4 saves) you would have had a team that has 87 wins. Without that big trade happening you could have had a 90+ win team that may have made the playoffs. Now hold on before you throw me under the bus. That is a completely hypothetical situation. A situation where the Red Sox would have been well over the luxury tax with another contract like Papelbons’ on the books for the year. A 4 year $50 million dollar contract would have been a gross overpay. There is absolutely no guarantee that Papelbon would have only blown 4 saves if he would have been with the Sox. But in his years with the Sox, he averaged 4 blown saves each year. The 2012 Red Sox were a miserable bunch who were horrible to watch for the majority of the season with drama, bad attitudes, bad manager and so forth. The front office admittedly made mistakes by signing big name players to contracts far beyond the years and pay that they should have. That team was headed for disaster whether you can admit it or not. By not signing Papelbon in the winter of 2011 they did themselves a favor unknowingly beyond not digging into another huge contract. The dominoes fell for them when the Red Sox routinely dropped games in the late innings. Had Papelbon been there, and saved games, there is a strong likelihood that the trade with the Dodgers would have never happened. Contracts to players who have done nothing but fight with injuries since would still be with the Red Sox. The clubhouse would still have the stink of negativity and discourse to it. So the Red Sox did make the right move in letting Papelbon go both in hindsight and financial terms.

However, times have changed. This team is playing good baseball. The players are happy and consequently the fans are too. The back-end of the Red Sox bullpen looks pretty good with Bailey closing games out. How long will he stay healthy though should be a question the front office is thinking about constantly. Bailey has had an injury ridden career, and if he were to go down again, the Red Sox may not have the right guys behind him to routinely get the job done. Hanrahan was acquired to be the closer or fall back guy and Tommy John surgery has taken him out of that role and put onto the DL for the remainder of the year.

Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe suggests that the Sox may be targeting Papelbon if the Phillies are sellers at the deadline. It makes sense to see what kind of deal could be worked out for Papelbon. Unlike other trades that have been made for back-end bullpen help, Papelbon has been proven to be effective for the Red Sox in Fenway Park as well as against the AL and NL alike. He has a very limited injury history, and a career 2.30 ERA and is 89% in career save opportunties. The  issues that exist are: How is the relationship really between the front office and Papelbon? How would the fans react? How would Bailey react? How much of the contract would the Phillies be willing to eat? What would the Red Sox have to give up? And most importantly, is this the move this club needs most?

There is no definite correct answer to if the Red Sox should or should not bring Papelbon back. It would be naive to think he is not worth at least a thought, and just as naive to think it is a no-brainer to go and get him. It will be a situation that will be developing over the course of the next month and a half.  It’s bound to rile up the fan base between those who still love him, and those who kindle a fire of hate in the pits of their stomach just thinking about him being back in Boston.

Let’s hear from you, what are your thoughts? Do you want to see Jonathan Papelbon back in a Red Sox uniform?

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