I must start this post by saying that it pains me to be writing it. I am weeping a little bit — actually a lot of bit — and my self loathing has rarely been higher. It’s made worse by the fact that I don’t usually do this — I tend to hang on to veteran players for too long if anything. I like the Shaq trade, and Mike Lowell can hang around forever. But I think it’s time for Jonathan Papelbon to go. It hurts just saying that.
Few Red Sox have had a more dramatic impact on Boston’s recent success. Papelbon was on the mound to end the 2007 World Series, and has 7 postseason saves while maintaining a 1.00 ERA for the Red Sox. Even with the hype that he gets, he has been underappreciated. If he records one more save this year, he’ll be the first pitcher ever to record 30+ saves in his first 5 years in the league. Here are his numbers:
2006 — .92 ERA, 35 saves
2007 — 1.85 ERA, 37 saves
2008 — 2.34 ERA, 41 saves
2009 — 1.85 ERA, 38 saves
2010 — 3.26 ERA, 29 saves (thus far)
The reason I’m saying we have to let him go is simple — he’s a closer who has started to blow more games than he should. Papelbon blew it for us in the playoffs last year, and he’s blown 6 saves already this year. Six blown saves is not a huge number by any measure, but it certainly isn’t ideal — especially as the Red Sox find themselves in a very tight wild card race.
From a pitching standpoint, this is all very frustrating as Papelbon still consistently hits 98 mph on the radar gun when he needs to. His splitter has come a long way, to the point of possibly being the best in baseball. But other than that, he doesn’t have much — and he’s leaving his fastball up. If it’s up and going that fast, it gets out of the park quickly. Lots of pitchers, especially power pitchers, struggle with this. Papelbon has been no exception. He needs to learn to keep the ball down, or he’s toast.
The worst (or best part) is this — we have another reliever in Daniel Baird who can throw 98+ mph and has a 1.89 ERA. I think Baird is our closer of the future, although he’s not half as fun as Papelbon to watch. It gets even easier to get rid of Papelbon knowing that his trade value is still extremely high — we could pick up another great arm or bat for him easily.
If I was Theo Epstein, as tough as it would be, I’d be looking to deal Papelbon this offseason if a good opportunity presents itself. As for this year, I’d keep him as the closer — you don’t want Terry Francona to lose him mentally by demoting him to middle relief. Throw Baird in to close out some games, but make it clear Papelbon is still the closer. He is sure fun as hell to watch — and one of my favorite players on the Red Sox.