One Mistake by Theo Epstein Boston Red Sox Fans Might Not Forgive

A majority of Red Sox Nation, wrote off Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, after last year’s less than stellar performance. Granted, Papelbon had a very off year, for the best closer this side of Mariano Rivera. Those who follow baseball closely, realized that Papelbon had set the bar so high for himself, both in the regular and post season, that, anything less than lights out, every time he stepped on the mound, would raise eyebrows. And he raised a lot of them in 2010, blowing 8 saves and sporting a stout era of 3.90. An earned run average more than a run and a half larger than any of his previous 4 seasons as the Red Sox closer. I even wondered to myself what was up with Boston’s 9th inning “sure thing”.

Then I looked at Mariano Rivera’s career statistics and noticed that he too, around the same time in his career as a closer, had a few blips on the radar as well. Now granted, a blip for Mariano Rivera, is a much different bump in the road than any other closer in the history of the game. There simply is no equal, even when you consider the last 5 years, the closest thing to Mariano Rivera has been Jonathan Papelbon. When looking at Rivera’s career, he had a few seasons, in his elite prime, that you could compare to Papelbon’s poor performance last year. In those 2 off seasons, early in his career, Rivera blew 9 and 7 games and had era’s that didn’t feel quite right for the Yankee fireballer. Granted an era of 2.85 (which Rivera had in one of those years), would be considered outstanding for anyone else, but let’s remember, Rivera churned out sub 2.00 eras, like the United States Government does unbalanced budgets. When Rivera’s era blew up to more than a full run larger than what baseball fans were used to, quite a few people said to themselves, “Hmmm”.

The Boston Red Sox are on the verge of a huge mistake. That misstep being Jonathan Papelbon leaving after this season to free agency. And I’m not saying this now, on the heels of one of Papelbon’s finest seasons in Boston. Yes, this is one of his finest seasons. For a few reasons. Papelbon has shown a strong mental toughness in dealing with his up in the air future with the Red Sox and bouncing back after his worst season. Statistically, his strikeout to walk ratio mirrors that of his best years, along with his hits per inning and whip total. He is also on pace to have the best save percentage of his career, blowing only one save to this point, in 27 save opportunities. Baseball analysts and fans alike, love to point at era as a determination of success for a closer. And they aren’t completely wrong in doing so. Not giving up runs in the 9th inning, is a pretty important job for a pitcher, especially the guy you send out there to end the game in “crunch time”. Papelbon’s era is at 3.14 as of August 11. If you don’t watch the games or follow Papelbon closely, I can see why that era would be once again raising eyebrows. I do happen to watch the games and I have followed Papelbon closely, because I was one of the few who thought the Red Sox had made a big mistake by not extending him to a long term deal after the 2008 or 2009 seasons. Pap’s 3.14 era, means absolutely nothing to me. It could be 27.00 and I still wouldn’t care. What?

That’s right. I couldn’t care a less. This is why. Every single run Papelbon has given up this year, every single one, has been in games he entered when the Red Sox were ahead or behind by 2 or more runs. In games where he stepped on the mound with Boston clinging to a one run lead or tied, Jonathan Papelbon has been perfect. 12 times to be exact. Unhittable. Amazingly, the one blown save he has allowed, came in a game against Minnesota on May 9 early in the year. He entered the game in the 8th inning, with runners already on 2nd and 3rd and surrendered a bloop hit to shallow center. A game which he was credited for the blown save but not the earned run. A game in which Boston still ended up winning in the 11th. What does all this mumbo jumbo tell you? What it tells me is simply this. When the game is truly on the line in the 9th inning, Papelbon has been perfect. 9th inning perfection, that no other closer has achieved this year in baseball.

I’m not sure what else Papelbon has to do to prove to both the Red Sox and their fans, that he is ultimately the person the ball should be given to in the ninth. Past this season. Fans simply think Daniel Bard will step in and take over the closer role if Papelbon leaves. You are giving up the known, for the unknown. Even if the unknown looks like he could get the job done, you still aren’t 100% sure. If you still aren’t sure about Papelbon, then I’m not exactly sure what you expect from your closer. Maybe if Papelbon strikes out the side, cures 5 major diseases and solves world hunger in every one of his next 20 outings, will you then be convinced? Oh and also gets the country out of economic crisis. Even if he does all this from now until the Sox win the World Series, it still might be too late.

If Papelbon leaves after 2011, now what do the Red Sox do with the 8th inning? Since Bard has shown he is as much a sure thing in setting up, as Papelbon is at closing games, that’s a pretty big factor to let walk out the door. Right now the Red Sox own the best 8th/9th inning duo in all of baseball and that duo could have been Papelman & Robbard for the next 2-3 years if Boston would have only extended Papelbon to a long term deal years ago. Bard won’t have the opportunity to hit free agency for a few more years, so if Paps was locked up after 2008 or 2009 for 5 years, Red Sox fans could be singing “na na na na na na na na…(insert super hero song catch phrase here)”, for the next 2-3 years. Now, it looks like Papelbon may walk. And I don’t blame him. And for the first time in my Red Sox vocabulary history, I wouldn’t hold against a former Red Sox player, walking right intto Yankee Stadium and putting on the pinstripes.

That’s where he is probably headed Red Sox Nation. Because guess who is going to be retiring soon? Mariano Rivera. How much do you think the Yankees would offer Papelbon to close games for them? How much is it worth to the Evil Empire to wield their red light sabers and slice the torsos off every fan in Boston? I bet you quite a lot. How about the tune of 5-6 years $90-100 million alot? Is that so crazy to think? It’s New York people. If Papelbon does hit free agency and all signs point to that, I will guarantee you right now, he will be offered the largest contract to a closer, by a wide margin, in the history of baseball…by the New York Yankees.

Of all the lessons Theo Epstein and the Red Sox have learned in building and winning 2 titles in 7 years, I wish the lesson they would have kept close to heart, is that they didn’t get over the hump until they found a closer. Until they got their bullpen in line, as they did with Keith Foulke in 2004 and Papelbon in 2007. And if Papelbon saves 3 games in this years World Series, making it 3 in 8 years, the lesson continues. Theo has had great intuition as far as letting players walk, at the right time. This walk could quite possibly leave Red Sox fans on crutches. A move that could bite Boston, at least 18 times a year, for the next 5-6 years. Who are we kidding Red Sox fans, if Jonathan Papelbon goes to the Yankees, it would sting much harder and for a lot longer than that.

Article Sources:
Yahoo! Sports

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