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Something to be said for stability

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  November 16, 2011 10:13 AM

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What Terry Francona knew, as much as anything, was the value of stability. Francona believed in it. The former manager of the Red Sox valued those who played every game, who took the ball unfailingly, who demonstrated, above all else, competitiveness and resiliency and grit.

That is why, six years ago, Francona wanted Jonathan Papelbon to be his closer.

And that is what the Red Sox will miss most now that Papelbon is gone.

Where the Red Sox go from here will be interesting, to say the least, but here's a prediction for you in the wake of Papelbon's departure from Boston to Philadelphia, where he recently signed a four-year, $50 million contract to be the closer of the Phillies: the Red Sox are going to miss him more than you think they will. For six years, no team other than the New York Yankees has enjoyed the kind of stability at closer that the Red Sox have had, and anyone who deems that irrelevant clearly has not paid attention to recent Red Sox history.

Independent of all the numbers, ask yourself this: since Papelbon took over as closer in early 2006, has there ever been an occasion in which anyone has really wondered who would be getting the ball in the ninth? No. A thousand times no. Even when Papelbon struggled in 2010 - and he did, totaling a whopping eight blown saves that year - there was never really a doubt. Maybe that is as much a reflection on Francona as much as it was on Papelbon, who gave the Red Sox an advantage over most every other team in the American League when it came time to nail down a win.

The saves? Please. They mean nothing in and of themselves. There may be no more worthless statistic in baseball. But what did matter was the stability, particularly when one considers the alternatives.

Ah, but how quickly we forget. The Red Sox had a championship-caliber team in 2003, for instance, the year of the infamously failed experiment known as closer-by-committee. The Red Sox had a cluster of capable relievers that year, but the absence of a closer and, thus, any truly defined roles, doomed them. The Sox tried to rectify the problem repeatedly during the course of the year, acquiring most any reliever who was not nailed down, but they still needed a starter (Derek Lowe) to close Game 5 of their American League Division Series victory over the Oakland A's.

So you know what the Sox did that winter? They went out and acquired Keith Foulke, the best closer on the market, a move that paid immediate dividends by helping them win a championship. Manny Ramirez was the Most Valuable Player of the World Series, as it turned out, but Foulke should have been. Francona leaned on Foulke heavily that October, asking him to pitch in 11 of the team's 14 postseason games - including all four in the World Series - a responsibility Foulke eagerly embraced. In 14 innings, Foulke allowed one earned run and went 1-0 with a 0.64 ERA, making him worth every cent of the three-year, $20.25 million contract the Sox awarded him.

Now here's where the Red Sox make their argument: after that season, undoubtedly as the result of workload that saw Foulke pitch more innings than any major league reliever but Scott Sullivan over the six-year span from 1999-2004, Foulke burned out. He was never the same. He labored through a 2005 season in which he pitched just 45.2 innings while posting a 5.91 ERA, a big part of the reason the Sox finished a collective 29th in baseball in bullpen ERA.

In the end, Foulke begot Papelbon, whom Francona turned to early in 2006 when Foulke continued to struggle. Lest anyone forget, then-general manager Theo Epstein wanted to Papelbon to be a starter. Francona wanted him as a closer. The manager's concern was at the end of the game, and not solely because Foulke had struggled. What Francona knew - and what we all know - is that late-inning difficulties can destroy a team like no other problem.

With Foulke, in retrospect, Francona ran him into the ground, a sin he nearly repeated in Papelbon's first year (2006), when the young closer effectively missed September with a shoulder injury. That winter, perhaps at the urging of Epstein and baseball operations, Francona clearly made a decision to handle Papelbon more delicately, and multiple-inning outings and consecutive appearances were generally reduced to a minimum beginning in 2007.

Know what happened that year? The Red Sox won the World Series again. And they nearly got back to the Series in 2008, when Francona leaned on Papelbon so heavily during October (12.1 innings in nine appearances) that a worn-out Papelbon looked to be unavailable in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series at Tampa Bay.

In the end, here's the ultimate question: is the performance of all relievers really all that unpredictable? Or is inconsistency the product of how they are managed? If that sounds like a criticism of how Francona handled Papelbon, it isn't. After early mistakes, Francona typically handled Papelbon quite well, choosing to lean on him only in the postseason. The Yankees learned to do the same thing with Mariano Rivera, who has pitched as many as 70 games only twice in the last 10 years.

Since the end of 2006, Papelbon has never been back on the disabled list. Not once. Nonetheless, the Red Sox long ago deemed him to be a long-term risk, explaining why there was almost no discussion between the teams when Papelbon hit the market this offseason.

All of that brings us to the here and now, to a deep crop of free agent relievers that includes everyone from Ryan Madson and Jose Francisco Cordero - both of whom the Sox have reportedly expressed interest in - to Joe Nathan, Brad Lidge and Heath Bell, among others. Any or all could be suitable replacements on a short-term basis. That said, it is worth noting that someone like Cordero is a Type-A free agent, which, pending the outcome of the ongoing collective bargaining talks, may mean that the Red Sox must forfeit a first-round draft pick as compensation.

If the Sox sign someone like Cordero on a one-year contract and forfeit a first-round pick, does that really make any sense? And if they must go to, say, three years on Cordero, Madson or anyone else, then wouldn't it have been advisable to just go four years with Papelbon?

For those answers, we have little choice but to take a wait-and-see approach.

Regardless, this much is certain: next spring, for the first time in years, the Red Sox will go into the season with uncertainty at closer. As such, the Red Sox manager - whoever he is - is likely to have a shorter leash than the one Francona has had over the last six years. If and when said closer fails, there will be unrest in the clubhouse and on the field, as there was in 2003 or any succession of years from 1995-2005, the period preceding Papelbon's emergence.

During that time, the Red Sox had closers who put together a singular, good season.

But they never had anyone who took care of the job the way Papelbon did, and that is something we are all likely to learn again.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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