Before yesterday, Jonathan Papelbon had achieved every hallmark of an elite reliever during his menacing, three-year tenure as Red Sox closer except one. He saved 113 games and hurled 25 postseason innings without surrendering an earned run, glaring and fist-pumping his way into club history. Only his compensation was lacking; he had never earned $1 million in a season.
Papelbon's salary now is commensurate with his accomplishments. Yesterday, he signed a one-year contract that, according to a baseball source, is worth $6.25 million - an 806-percent raise over his 2008 salary of $775,000. In awarding Papelbon the deal, a record for a relief pitcher in his first year eligible for arbitration, the Sox avoided what would have been Theo Epstein's first arbitration hearing in his seven offseasons as general manager.
The Sox also signed lefthanded specialist Javier Lopez to a one-year contract that, according to a baseball source, is worth $1.35 million, also in keeping with Epstein's history of avoiding arbitration hearings.
The Sox avoided arbitration for Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis earlier this winter by signing both to long-term contracts. While Papelbon is signed to a one-year deal, both he and the Sox remain open to a long-term commitment.
"We did have some discussions along the way," assistant GM Jed Hoyer said. "I would say certainly those discussions are open and we may pick them up going forward. I think both sides felt like in the interest of time and not exchanging numbers [for an arbitration hearing], the best thing to do was to agree on a one-year number today. But we are certainly open to exploring those ideas, and I think their side is, too."
Papelbon, who has slightly more than three years of major league service, will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2011 season, so he was going to be a part of the Sox in 2009 no matter what. But by signing Papelbon (and Lopez), the Sox bypassed the risk of paying more after an arbitration hearing.
"It's certainly satisfying," Hoyer said. "You definitely don't go into the process saying, 'We're going to avoid it.' I think that you go in trying to get a fair number for the team. In the back of our minds, we had two players in that situation who had meant a lot to the team, who have won a lot of games for us. You certainly don't want to go into a hearing room if you don't have to."
Papelbon, 28, trails only Francisco Rodriguez (149) and Trevor Hoffman (118) in saves over the last three seasons. Hoffman, who at 41 is near the end of his career, signed a one-year, $6 million contract with the Brewers last week. Rodriguez this offseason signed a three-year, $37 million deal with the Mets.
Rodriguez's situation differs from Papelbon's because Rodriguez had six years of major league service and was eligible to become a free agent. Papelbon's situation most closely mirrored that of White Sox closer Bobby Jenks.
Like Papelbon, Jenks finished the 2008 season with just over three years of major league service, had closed for a World Series champion, and had made multiple All-Star Games. On Monday, Jenks signed a one-year contract with the White Sox worth $5.6 million, which set a standard for a player in Papelbon's position that lasted one day.
"We felt like Jonathan deserved to have some separation between him and Bobby," Hoyer said. "I think it wasn't so much us making him the highest ever. I think it was him really earning it."
In the past, Papelbon has made clear his desire to be known and compensated as one of the best closers in the American League.
"I feel like with me being at the top of my position, I feel like that standard needs to be set and I'm the one to set that standard," he said during spring training last year. "And I don't think that the Red Sox are really necessarily seeing eye to eye with me on that subject right now. Hopefully, we can get somewhere."
Papelbon can now be content. His contract is the third richest for a player in his first year of arbitration eligibility, behind only first baseman Ryan Howard's $10 million contract last offseason and Miguel Cabrera's $7.4 million deal two years ago. Both players won arbitration cases.
Last year, Papelbon made the All-Star team for the third time. He saved a career-best 41 games in a career-high 69 1/3 innings, posting a 2.34 ERA while striking out 77. As he did in 2007, Papelbon elevated his performance in the playoffs, allowing just five base runners and striking out 13 in 10 1/3 innings. He also set a record for most consecutive scoreless postseason innings to begin a career.
Lopez, 31, threw a career-high 59 1/3 innings last season, his third with the Red Sox. He posted a 2.43 ERA and finished fourth in the AL with 70 appearances.
The Red Sox also made a minor move, swapping righthanded reliever David Aardsma for minor league lefty Fabian Williamson of the Mariners. Williamson, 20, spent all of 2008 in Single A Pulaski, going 4-3 with a 4.10 ERA in 11 starts. The Mariners acquired Williamson - labeled by Hoyer as "athletic" - in the 22d round of the 2006 draft.
Amalie Benjamin of the Globe staff contributed to this report; Adam Kilgore can be reached at email@example.com.