Is Papelbon Papelgone?

The hundred or so days between now and the day pitchers and catchers report will likely be the longest of Jonathan Papelbon’s 28 years. Consistently dominant since bursting onto the scene in 2005 and ascending to closer in 2006, including 27 scoreless innings in the postseason, Boston’s big-game pitcher came up small on an October Sunday;  blowing the save and ending the Red Sox 2009 season earlier than many had predicted and hoped. Is Red Sox Nation wrong calling for a trade of their All-Star closer or are they on to something?

Papelbon’s Value

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Papelbon has made $6.5 million dollars in 2009, pending final bonus tallies, and is again entering what will likely be a costly arbitration showdown with the front office. Given the Red Sox hesitancy in handing out long-term deals, especially to relief pitchers (notable exception Keith Foulke was signed to a 3 year deal after the 2003 season) Papelbon is likely headed out of Boston when he hits free agency.

For comparison, Foulke’s previous three years before signing with Boston:

  • 2001 –  2.33 ERA,  0.975 WHIP, 3.41 K/BB, 42 saves
  • 2002 –  2.90, ERA, 1.00 , 4.46 K/BB, 11 saves
  • 2003 –  2.08 ERA,  0.888 WHIP, 4.40 K/BB, 43 saves

And Jonathan Papelbon’s past three seasons:

  • 2007 – 1.85 ERA, 0.771 WHIP, 5.60 K/BB, 37 saves
  • 2008 – 2.34 ERA, 0.952 WHIP, 9.63 K/BB, 41 saves
  • 2009 – 1.85 ERA, 1.147 WHIP, 3.17 K/BB, 38 saves

Papelbon is certainly correct to value himself among the top relievers in baseball, though he has seen an increase in his WHIP and dramatic fluctuation in his strikeout to walk ratio. Foulke’s numbers were remarkably consistent over the three year period. Foulke stands out as the only reliever the Red Sox have signed to a long-term contract. Alan Embree, Hideki Okajima, John Halama, J.C. Romero, and even old standby Mike Timlin have been lesser pickups with upside (some more than others).

Future Team Needs

The Red Sox certainly do not have to trade their righty reliever, but they may explore it for reasons unrelated to fan outrage and a blown postseason save. Mike Lowell, David Ortiz, Josh Beckett, J.D. Drew, and Victor Martinez will all see their contracts expire over the next two years. And Tim Wakefield will be defying the rigors of age once again. And don’t forget about Jason Bay approaching free agency at the end of this postseason! This is partially good news; should those players leave for draft picks, the Red Sox could be in for another bumper crop of prospects just as they were after 2004 and 2005 which netted them Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia among others.

In the meantime, this team is still very talented but could use help at shortstop, third or first base, catcher and above all, a power bat – no matter what position that person plays. The issue here is to find a match. I would look into trading Papelbon if the return is right. Billy Wagner wants to close, and with Papelbon gone, he could be the bridge to the Daniel Bard closer era. Supported by Ramon Ramirez and Okajima, this is still one of the best bullpens in baseball.

Where Papelbon Could Go

But who needs a closer?  The Cubs are a big market team who disappointed on many levels, have at least a partial opening at closer with Carlos Marmol already in the fold as an elite setup man.  They also have the financial resources to lock up an ace long term.

Another target would be the Angels’ Scott Kazmir. A package centered around Papelbon and perhaps Josh Reddick or another young outfielder (Abreu and Vlad are both free agents) for Kazmir and Brandon Wood would give the Red Sox a young solution for the left side of the infield as well as a potentially dominant rotation. Kazmir has some injury history, which is why the Angels were able to pick him up on the cheap in August, but Papelbon would put all their Brian Fuentes worries behind them. With a $9 million dollar salary for 2010 and a vesting option for 2011, the Red Sox may have to take on Fuentes’ salary or provide some cash in the deal, but both teams could emerge from it stronger.

They don’t need to trade Papelbon, but it doesn’t hurt to look.