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March 31, 2011

(Originally written in fall 2009; ironically, he’s on my fantasy team, though I still despise him)

It’s difficult to despise someone who performs so admirably on the field, but with Jonathan Papelbon, there’s a lingering dislike. In the rare occasion that he fucks up, I’m ready to pounce; he has a shorter leash than any other player on the Sox.

The stale taste in my mouth goes back to Spring Training 2007. After closely following Papelbon’s ascent through the minors, and being thoroughly impressed with his one year as a closer, I was ready for the big step: his permanent move to the rotation. I salivated over the thought of a young staff anchored by Beckett, Daisuke, Papelbon, and Lester, a foursome that, in my mind, would go on to dominate the American League for a decade (I had even taken notice of a young fireballer, Clay Buchholz, who had just dominated the lower minors, racking up 11 wins and 140 K in 199 IP, with a 2.42 ERA). The Red Sox brass held a similar vision, offering him Clemens’ number 21—a gesture loaded with a singular implication: that he would become something truly great.

Well we all know how everything turned out. During Spring Training ’07, conveniently for Papelbon, the club couldn’t settle on a closer; then he had a “revelation” and decided he just didn’t have it in his heart to be a starting pitcher. Sure, we won the World Series that year. But who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t have had to suffer through a seven game nail biter versus Cleveland, cringing at every pitch the nibbling Japanese import threw during his epic-ly horrific five inning-120 pitch-six walk outings. Maybe in the 2008 ALCS he could have been the filler for Beckett’s ineffectiveness.

The relative value of a good closer versus a good starter is not even debatable. A closer contributes roughly 70 innings per year, while a healthy starter can contribute upwards of 200. Closers are interchangeable and plentiful, but a solid, consistent starter is hard to find. For all the praise heaped upon Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan, there are Jose Valverdes and Heath Bells ready to rip off a couple 45 save seasons before fading into oblivion. The great closers are lauded for their consistency, above all else. But there are plenty of closers who can be great for a season or two, and plenty of failed starters who make excellent closers (Tom Gordon, Eric Gagne + steroids).

In other words, I don’t care how good Papelbon is as a closer; I still consider a pitcher who can give me 200 innings, an ERA under 4.00 and a WHIP under 1.25 more valuable than an elite closer. Although it’s all speculation, I feel like those are baseline numbers that Papelbon could have consistently achieved on a year-to-year basis as a starter.

Unfortunately, we’ll never find out. The notion of Papelbon one day becoming a starter a la Derek Lowe and Ryan Dempster has been repeatedly shot down by “Cinco Ocho” himself:

“Print this,” he said in an Esquire interview during the 2009 offseason. “I will never start a baseball game in my life, ever.” (Then again, this is the same guy who once said, “I just feel I’m better as a starter. The reason why this team drafted me in ’04 was to be a starter. I’m going to take this opportunity and run with it…”)

Furthermore, we’ll probably never see Papelbon in a Boston uniform after the 2011 season. He’s refused to discuss a long term deal with the club prior to his free-agent eligibility, sacrificing the security of a long term deal in the mold of Lester-Pedroia-Youkilis’ for what he believes will be a monster deal in the 2011 offseason.

“I’ve got a lot of money to be made in this game,” he said in 2007. “Whether it’s with Boston or not.” (Let’s hope his arm doesn’t fall apart in 2011—okay, I admit it, that’s exactly what I’m wishing will happen)

Maybe it’s the fear that his arm will blow out that led to his altered delivery this past season, designed to put less stress on his arm, but more stress on his fans, who shuddered as he labored through every 30 pitch ninth inning, and cringed at every warning track shot. His ERA over the past two seasons is deceiving—his WHIP is up, and, frankly, he may be primed for an epic collapse in the playoffs.

I’m all for trading him this offseason to some team like the Mets, a club willing to give him the contract he thinks he deserves (that K-Rod contract will absolutely blow up in their face). Bard has the stuff to take over; if he can’t hack it, someone will—an Octavio Dotel or Rafael Soriano is lurking around somewhere.

For me, the theatrics have grown old; “Shipping Up To Boston” has been beaten to death, somehow having become more cliché than his first entrance song, “Wild Thing.” Between Papelbon and his counterparts in New York, I’ve seen more fist pumps than a Thai hooker.

It’s time to go.

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