With regard to the man who was once the bulletproof closer of the Red Sox, the clear line of demarcation rests in October 2008. That was when the Red Sox leaned heavily on Jonathan Papelbon. And that was when he might have turned into something different, something far less dominating, something as uncertain as his team has now become.
Boston escaped from New York last night with a 7-6 victory over the New York Yankees that salvaged a split of a two-game miniseries, but your Fortune .500 Red Sox -- they cost a fortune, play .500 -- left the Bronx with as many questions as ever. One of them now concerns the continued difficulties of a closer who was once among the surest things in baseball, an issue that will be front and center if these Sox continue to trudge toward trading deadline at their current uninspiring pace.
That is when the Red Sox may need to decide whether to trade away Papelbon or to forge onward, particularly with the prospect of free agency looming for him at the end of the 2011 season.
Were the Red Sox 25-15 today instead of 20-20, there would be fewer questions, obviously, and there would be relatively little (if any) reason to discuss Papelbon’s immediate future. Even now, as long as the Sox have a legitimate chance to win a championship, Papelbon stays. But the circumstances surrounding Papelbon have changed dramatically since October 2008, prompting a series of questions brought to discussion thanks to the last two nights at Yankee Stadium.
"I was hoping all night long that I’d get a chance," Papelbon told reporters after last night’s game. "I just want to show my team that it’s a heavyweight title fight and you might get one good blow on me but you ain’t going to knock me out.
"I just wanted to go out there and prove it to my teammates tonight. You have to give them all the credit in the world to come back and give me another chance."
And yet, Papelbon allowed five runs in 1.2 innings of this series, including the first walk-off homer of his career on Monday night. For roughly 18 months now, he has not been quite the same presence at the end of games. The question is whether Papelbon has suffered some deterioration of skill or whether he is pacing himself for the prospect of a big payday during the winter of 2011-12, when someone other than the Red Sox might give him the multi-year contract he covets.
Go back and look at Papelbon’s 2008 campaign. Entering a final, meaningless regular season appearance, Papelbon had a 1.98 ERA while amassing 76 strikeouts and just seven walks in 68.1 innings. In seven subsequent postseason appearances, Sox manager Terry Francona utilized Papelbon for more than one inning on four occasions. Three times, Papelbon pitched two full innings. On the night of the Sox’ Game 7 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, the general belief among those in and around the Red Sox was that Papelbon was so worn down that he was unavailable to pitch in a winner-take-all game.
Last year, after three two-inning appearances in the span of 13 days, Papelbon had just one more such outing all year. (He has two appearances of two or more innings this season.) Meanwhile, his walk rate exploded from 1.0 per nine innings (in 2008) to 3.2 (in 2009) to 4.5 (this year). His fastball now routinely hovers near 93-94 mph instead of at 96-97 mph. He appears to have lost both velocity and command, a devastating combination for a man who simultaneously has become a one-pitch pitcher.
Amid all of this, the only question that really matters concerns whether Papelbon has elected to pace himself as a matter of self-preservation – cha-ching – or whether the workload of October 2008 took some permanent physical toll on him. On the one hand, he seems fully capable of pumping his fastball up to 96 mph, as he did against Mark Teixeira on Monday night. On the other, he melted down last October in the playoffs, where the real money rests. Maybe the truth sits somewhere in between, which is to suggest that Papelbon isn’t quite the same pitcher with quite the same mentality.
And in his job, particularly, among the truly elite performers, the slightest dips in either make all the difference in the world.
Do not underestimate Papelbon’s importance to the Red Sox during his career. Even taking into account the hangover that was the 2005 season, the Red Sox of 2004-08 effectively neutralized Mariano Rivera thanks largely to the efforts of Keith Foulke (2004) and Papelbon (2006-08). During that span, the Sox won two world titles and appeared in three league championship series. Combined, Foulke and Papelbon posted a 0.23 ERA in 39 innings over 27 games with Papelbon failing to allow an earned run in 25 innings.
Today, of course, the Sox are mired in mediocrity and transition, from the top of their roster to the bottom. Just as David Ortiz, Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek are on the way out, Daniel Bard is moving closer and closer to displacing Papelbon. The Red Sox are almost certain to let Papelbon depart when the time comes – and the events of this season could move up that deadline. The Red Sox now are essentially one-fourth of the way through a season that has heretofore been a colossal disappointment, and there is simply no point in keeping Papelbon around for 2011 if the Sox can get more for him now.
Even for a cash-rich team like the Red Sox, there is no sense paying a fortune for a closer if you’re just going to play .500.
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