Payday for Papelbon

Jonathan Papelbon marches to the beat of a different drum. Or, in his case, to the twang of a different banjo.

The Red Sox closer has jigged to Irish music in his skivvies drinking a Bud Light. This was on the field. It was also televised.

During games, he wears his intensity on a scowled mask he presents to his opposition. My Dad calls it his “mean face”, and tells us how effective a “mean face” he has at least six times an at-bat. It’s really quite annoying. Mixing in a smile every once in a while would be nice, Pap.

But, more to the point, Papelbon has eschewed signing a long-term extension through the first six-plus years of his career, instead opting to take his chances through the arbitration process in hopes of a major free-agency deal. There is no rule necessitating players sign multi-year contracts, but more often than not players chose to sign an extension which may buy out a year or two of free agency.  Since contracts in baseball are guaranteed, a player who gets hit by a tiny rogue-meteor while bird watching in the Pacific Northwest during the first year of a three-year deal still collects paychecks for the next two years, despite having a sizable dent in his head. (See: Pavano, Carl for the New York Yankees. 4 year, $40 MM deal signed in 2005, he collected every penny, and pitched approximately nine innings over four years).

So, long story short, Papelbon’s choice is high-risk, high-reward. He makes the most he possibly can during the time leading up to his eligibility for free agency, but if he dislocates his shoulder playing Wii bowling, it likely costs him millions of dollars. To the benefit of both himself and the Red Sox, however, Cinco-Ocho has remained healthy throughout his tenure in Boston, and this winter holds a substantial pay raise for the 30 year old closer.

When this season began, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Papelbon was going to be given his walking papers after the Sox closed out their 2011 World Championship this Fall***. People pointed to the price tag, as well as the presence of closer-in-waiting Daniel Bard holding down the 8th inning  as reason enough to hand Papelbon his walking papers at the end of the year. More recently, though, voices have started to emerge calling for Theo Epstein to think seriously about ensuring that “Shippin’ up to Boston” remains a 9th inning tradition for years to come.

Far from simply rebounding from an off year, Papelbon has put together a superb contract year. Entering tonight’s game, he had a WHIP under 1.00 (0.95), and a sub-three ERA. More impressive is his K:BB ratio, which is staggering at better than 8:1. His fastball velocity is consistently back up to the mid-90s, and he’s spotting pitches as well as he has since 2008. No opponent has crossed the plate against Pap since July 16th against Tampa, and his only blown save of the year came May 9th against the Twins. He entered that game with two men on and two out in the eighth, and a bloop single scored the man from 2nd to tie the game.

I know this because I was there. Four and a half hours, any number of $8 beers, and a pretzel while watching the Sox win in 11. Not a bad evening.

Monster stats aside, however, this off-season might end in frustration for number 58. While he’ll likely be pointing to Mariano Rivera as a comparison, the chances of Papelbon finding a multi-year deal for $15 MM is looking exceedingly unlikely. More accurate might be the deal Rivera’s setup man inked, Rafael Soriano’s 3 year, $35 MM contract (ignoring his ridiculous opt-out clauses). $12 MM for a closer who has averaged over 37 saves a year for his career seems reasonable, especially considering his clean bill of health. Teams are going to be reticent to shell out tens of millions of dollars for closers on multi-year deals, simply because a number of those contracts have ended less than favorably. Francisco Rodriguez, for instance, signed a similar deal in 2008 (3/$37), and was shipped this year to Milwaukee after getting in any number of altercations with any number of relatives in New York.

It’s safe to say that the Mets regret the K-Rod signing.

With that in mind, teams might be more amiable to pursuing any of the closers in the 2012 free agent class, hoping to sign someone from the Matt Capps mold or take a flyer on a Broxton/Nathan/Lidge injury rebound project. Jose Valverde’s option is likely to be exercised, and Soriano is still laughing about his contract too hard to even contemplate opting out. Eliminating the small-market teams from the Papelbon Sweepstakes, simply because they can’t tie up a large chunk of payroll in a single position, many teams across baseball simply aren’t a fit.

So, as it turns out, there are only a select few teams who would be willing to commit both the years and millions of dollars required to have Papelbon on board through 2014 or so.

One of those teams is the Boston Red Sox.

Just think about it.

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