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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Red Sox Make Smart Decision on Papelbon

This post is a bit belated, but the wise decision by the Red Sox to let Jonathan Papelbon go in free agency deserves to be commended. Fans always clamber to bring back popular stars like the hard throwing reliever, but such moves are often not in the best interest of the teams. Although the off-season just started, allowing Papelbon to sign a four year, 50 million dollar contract (with a 5th year vesting option if he finishes 55 games in 2015 or a total of 100 between 2014-2015) with the Philadelphia Phillies may prove to be the best move that Boston makes in free agency.

Papelbon’s 219 saves and 2.33 ERA over the past seven seasons made him Boston’s version of Mariano Rivera. Because of such success in the ultra-competitive AL East, Papelbon rightfully sought his payday. However, at this stage in his career, any team that signed him was paying for his past performance and not what they could reasonably expect from him in the future. 

In his first four seasons in Boston, Papelbon had a stellar 1.84 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, and successfully converted 88.3% of his save attempts. While his save percentage remained exactly the same during the next three years, his ERA slipped to 2.89 and his WHIP to 1.19 during that time; a significant decline that does not bode well for future seasons. Much of this has been attributed to Papelbon relying almost exclusively on his fastball since 2009. Although he still throws in the mid-90’s, his fastball is extremely flat, and once he finally started throwing his slider and split finger again more regularly this year, they were not dominant pitches.

I am not suggesting that Papelbon’s performance will fall off a cliff now that he has signed with Philadelphia, but it is highly unlikely that he will earn his contract when it is all said and done. Having already overpaid for Ryan Howard, it is surprising that the Phillies were willing to go to such lengths to sign a closer, and one who has almost certainly already peaked in performance.  Papelbon will likely start off his contract with good numbers, but it is quite a gamble to believe he will perform that way over the course of all four years.

The Red Sox realized they have bigger fish to fry. They already have vast amounts of money committed to long term contracts like Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, but need to upgrade their starting rotation, and have MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury entering free agency next year. The sentimental choice would have been to retain Papelbon, who was a significant contributor during his Boston tenure. But I applaud Boston recognizing that re-signing the popular closer would be a gamble, and that spending that money elsewhere will likely have a greater impact on the future of the team’s success.

It is entirely possible that in the end everyone will get what they wanted. Papelbon already has his money, the Red Sox are a good bet to find a capable replacement closer, and the Phillies are hoping that their new 50 million dollar man slams the door to finish off many wins by their top notch rotation.  When it comes down to it though, I like the Red Sox side of things. I appreciate what Papelbon did in Boston these past seven years, but I am excited to see how the team can be helped because they chose not to let blind loyalty and sentiment cause a bad business decision.


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