It was Jonathan Papelbon who approached Terry Francona Wednesday to talk about going back to the closer role. That’s what he did in college. It’s what got him to the All-Star Game last summer.
It wasn’t panic, as Curt Schilling articulated in his “38 Pitches” blog, but choice.
Still, Papelbon saw what was and was not transpiring. The Red Sox doctors said his shoulder is stronger than it had been at any time since he signed in 2003 because he was so diligent in following their offseason and spring training program.
Boston had no trade options. The notion that the Astros, the favorites in the NL Central, would give them Brad Lidge was pure folly; the Red Sox are not enamored with Chad Cordero’s stuff, much less his asking price (the demands from Arizona were two players, neither of whom the D-Backs would deal by himself for Cordero); and Texas is not giving Akinori Otsuka away. “Reality,” says one AL GM, “is that there are 20 to 24 teams that right now are unhappy with their bullpen situations. Brett Tomko, Byung-Hyun Kim and Armando Benitez are not answers, especially in the American League East.”
So Papelbon went in and told Francona that he’d prefer closing. Boston will give the initial fifth starting job to Julian Tavarez — 3-0, 4.01 in six September starts, with swingman Kyle Snyder, Devern Hansack and Kason Gabbard on the radar and Jon Lester a June possibility. This also means that there will be further Roger Clemens speculation as a complement to what should be a very good, contrasting rotation of Schilliing, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett and Tim Wakefield.
“There is no legitimate bullpen help to be acquired right now,” said another AL GM. “And what we saw in Papelbon this spring is that he’d start out at 92-94 mph and gradually fall down to 88. Our people feel that he may throw so many pitches as a starter he’s a five-inning guy. And the Red Sox cannot afford to blow five leads in April with Papelbon sitting out there.”
Now, with Mike Timlin returning around April 10 and a setup staff of Brendan Donnelly, J.C. Romero, Snyder, Hideki Okajima and Joel Pineiro, there is order. Craig Hansen can go to the minors and try to find his lost natural delivery. When Timlin returns, Manny Delcarmen can get regular work at Pawtucket, if necessary.
The Red Sox dream about building a young, power bullpen with Hansen, Delcarmen, Justin Masterson, Bryce Cox and perhaps even Daniel Bard, with Papelbon at the end.
Francona will not use Papelbon as he did last year, for eighth-inning situations. But the manager knows if Papelbon blows a couple of saves in April, it is a relatively normal occurrence. But if Tavarez, Pineiro, et al blew three or four before May Day, it would be a constitutional crisis.
If Julio Lugo, Coco Crisp, J.D. Drew and Jason Varitek are healthy spread around Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox are going to be back among the top three offensive teams in the American League. What they cannot do is try to deal with what Bobby Cox calls “the disease” of bullpen failures, and a winter in which not one significant closer was acquired and a spring with no one on the radar. Papelbon walked in and offered an answer. -Peter Gammons of ESPN.com
Very interesting move. I guess it works out in the short term for the team. They can develop the young kids; Craig Hansen, Daniel Bard, Bryce Cox, and Manny Delcarmen; and see what they have for the future. Don’t expect Papelbon to repeat his 0.92 ERA of last year but he should still be an excellent closer. I rank him probably 6th or 7th in fantasy value.
The thing I don’t like about this move is that it puts Papelbon on a longer road to regain stamina when they decide, and they will, to put him in the rotation full-time. He finally got up to 5 innings, even though he was only sitting at 88mph. It has taken him all offseason and all spring training to get to that point and now it will take all of next offseason and probably all of spring training and some of the regular season in 2008 to get back to being the capable inning eating starter scouts and Boston Red Sox brass claim he can be.
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