The Future of The Closer

This post first appeared on BaseballDigest.com

In Boston, everybody looks forward to Truck Day. It’s the unofficial start of spring, because it means baseball is coming. This year, Truck Day is on Friday, and it’s not a stretch to say it’s considered a minor holiday in Boston.

Pitchers and catchers report a week after the truck leaves Boston, so we are just 9 days away from the first peak at the 2010 squad. It’s hard to believe ballplayers will be working out in Florida at a time when Fenway Park looks more like an outdoor ice rink than a ballpark.

While snow continues to bury New England and much of the east coast, now seems as good a time as any to consider one of the stories that might arise during the 2010 season and beyond. As spring training nears, I hope to touch upon a few of the stories that might take center stage in 2010. The first story may not be the biggest, but when it comes to Jonathan Papelbon, you never can tell.

Jonathan Papelbon has always been a vocal member of the Red Sox, and last summer proved no different when he made it known that he would consider an offer from the New York Yankees if he became a free agent when he is eligible following the 2011 season. Discussing his contract did not effect Papelbon’s ability to throw up some quality numbers in 2009. Despite saving 38 games with a sub 2.00 ERA, there are other numbers that raise eyebrows for Jonathan Papelbon’s long-term effectiveness. In particular, Papelbon’s WHIP(Walk and Hits per Innings Pitched) has increased in each of the last two season. In simpler terms, Papelbon allowed almost twice as many hits in 2008 and 2009 as he did in 2006-2007 and allowed 3 times as many walks in 2009 compared to 2008. On top of that, Papelbon’s strikeout totals have leveled off since his breakout season in 2007.

With Papelbon and the Red Sox agreeing to a contract before heading to arbitration, the closer will be paid over $9 Million for 2010. With the emergence of Daniel Bard last season, the Red Sox may be in the position to move on from Jonathan Papelbon following the 2011 season. Though Bard’s 2009 season was pedestrian compared to Papelbon, his ability to strike out major league hitters is impossible to ignore. During the 2009 season with the Pawtucket Red Sox, Bard struck out 29 in 16 innings and then struck out 63 in 49 innings with the big league club. He certainly has the velocity to take over as the closer. The 24 year old can hit 100 MPH on the radar gun, earning the nickname of Daniel “Hard” from some teammates.

How Daniel Bard performs this coming season will greatly impact which direction the Red Sox go in. If Bard’s sophomore season is an improvement on his rookie year and he shows he can regularly dominate MLB hitters, we will probably begin hearing more discussions about whether or not the Red Sox should consider working Papelbon into a trade to improve the team in other areas. The guess here is, if Bard proves to be the real deal, the Red Sox will let the franchise leader in saves depart in exchange for the draft picks they will receive when he signs elsewhere.

The Red Sox have taken this course several times in the past. For example, the Red Sox received 5 draft picks in 2005 as compensation when free agents Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Orlando Cabrera signed elsewhere. The players drafted with those picks were Jacoby Ellsbury, Craig Hansen, Clay Buchholz, Jed Lowrie and Michael Bowden.

Any way you slice it, the decision to let fan favorites walk proved to be a wise decision that played a role in a second world championship title within three years of the first in 86 years. Though Papelbon plays up an aloof attitude towards the media, there is no doubt he is probably aware the Red Sox front office has options when it comes to paying a high price for a commodity or going with a younger untested talent. Especially if it means there is a chance to obtain a draft pick that turns into the next Jacoby Ellsbury or Clay Buchholz.

Thanks to K.P. for the use of the photo from Fenway Park during the NHL Winter Classic

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