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Saving up for Papelbon

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  March 11, 2010 01:16 PM

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The Minnesota Twins season could be over before it started, and it's all because of the way they might have to finish games -- without closer Joe Nathan.

Nathan, who experienced discomfort in his elbow during a spring training outing against the Red Sox last Saturday, has been diagnosed with a dreaded tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right pitching elbow, and is likely facing Tommy John surgery.

The reliable reliever, who endured offseason surgery to remove bone chips from the same elbow, will try to stave off surgery with a regiment of rest and muscle strengthening. But realistically there is a better chance of the Vikings naming Brett Favre offensive coordinator than Nathan pitching the whole season with a UCL tear.

Since the tendency here is to view the world of sports through a parochial prism, let's imagine if this were the Red Sox losing closer Jonathan Papelbon. It could be in 2012, if they don't lock up the 29-year-old Papelbon, due to become a free-agent after the 2011 season, to a long-term deal.

Daniel Bard might be the best bard to work his magic from a pen since William Shakespeare, but there is no proof he is a closer the caliber of Papelbon. He might throw like Nolan Ryan, but close games like Ken Ryan. You just don't know.

That's why lights-out closers like Papelbon and Nathan are one of the most undervalued commodities in modern baseball. Teams try to save pennies when it comes to saves, believing you can get any old Joe to get the last couple of outs. You can, for a year or two.

Last year, David Aardsma, who was eminently ordinary with the Sox in 2008, posting a 5.55 ERA, had as many saves (38) as Papelbon. But no position flames out faster than firemen, and you would be foolish to presume Aardsma is as capable a closer as Cinco Ocho (his Spanish, not mine).

Nothing can undermine a team faster than uncertainty and uneasiness in the eighth and ninth; just ask Grady Little. That's why pitchers like Papelbon, who since becoming the Sox closer in 2006 has 151 saves, the fourth-most in baseball, behind Francisco Rodriguez (184), Nathan (159) and Trevor Hoffman (155), that consistently save the day are just as valuable as quality starting pitchers.

They want to be compensated like them.

There is a salary glass ceiling in baseball for closers and the long-term issue between the Sox and Papelbon, who avoided arbitration with the Sox by signing a one-year, $9.35 million deal, is he wants to be the one that breaks through. Nathan's injury might help him make his case.

Papelbon has repeatedly said he feels a responsibility to raise the bar for relievers' contracts like ageless Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. The pinstripe closer nonpareil will get paid $15 million in the final year of a three-year, $45 million deal that made him the highest-compensated closer in the game's history.

After Rivera, you have schizophrenic Phillies fireman Brad Lidge ($12.5 million per season), Nathan, who signed a four-year, $47 million deal (with a 2012 club option) in 2008 and Mets finisher Rodriguez, who signed a three-year, $37 million deal (with a club option for 2012) in 2009.

Those sound like decent deals, but compare them with what starting pitchers get. K-Rod, coming off a single-season major league saves record with 62 in 2008, signed his deal with the Mets the same offseason starting pitcher Oliver Perez got a three-year, $36 million deal from the Kings of Queens. Perez has a career-record of 58-64 with a 4.54 ERA but will make almost as much as one of the game's great closers while pitching in less than half as many games.

The Tigers are paying three starting pitchers -- Jeremy Bonderman ($12.5 million), Dontrelle Willis ($12 million) and Nate Robertson ($10 million) -- more than Papelbon will make this season, and it's possible that none of them could actually end up in Detroit's starting rotation.

Bronson Arroyo (remember him?) will make $11 million this season.

Before the 2007 season, there was this whole debate about whether Papelbon should stay in the bullpen or become a starter. He had been slowed by a shoulder subluxation that ended his 2006 season, and Papelbon himself was convinced he was ticketed for the rotation.

He remained a closer and the Sox won the World Series. They've made the playoffs in three of his four seasons as finisher.

Arguably, the biggest reason the Yankees have won five world titles in Rivera's 15 seasons is Rivera.

Papelbon affects the outcome of far more games as a reliever than he would have as a starter. He has finished 223 games since '06, the fifth-most in baseball. His save percentage over the same period is 89.9 percent, right near Nathan's 90.3. Rivera is at 93.6.

Papelbon said he learned from last season when his hits and walks rose, he had a couple of Heathcliff Slocumb saves and his 26-inning postseason scoreless streak came to a shocking end -- along with the Red Sox season -- against the Angels in the American League Division Series.

He understands that greatness on the level of Rivera is earned.

"Iím very confident in my ability, but at the same time I understand you canít just show up and greatness is going to happen," said Papelbon on March 2. "You have to work towards greatness, and Iím excited for the challenge."

Expect to see the return of Papelbon's split-fingered fastball than season and his focus, although he bristled at the notion that last year was somehow sub-par. But that is how high he has set the bar that a 1.85 ERA and 38 saves can be nitpicked.

Nitpicking the work of an elite closer is a great problem to have. Just ask the Twins. 
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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news


...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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