Last week Jonathan Papelbon inked a four year, $50 million deal with the Phillies after their talks in a similar deal for incumbent closer Ryan Madson fell through. "Cinco Ocho" followed in the footsteps of Mo Vaughn, Johnny Damon, Pedro Martinez and others during the past dozen years to depart Boston as a big-name free-agent in the prime of their careers after providing the Fenway Faithful with several years of unforgettable memories. The former fan favorite's popularity had waned during the past few years here, and many fans had already accepted that their stalwart closer would not be coming back in 2012. The general consensus was that his skills were in decline after shaky seasons in 2009 and 2010 marked by rising walk and WHIP rates, not to mention his infamous meltdowns in Game 3 of the 2009 ALDS and the final regular season game against the Orioles this year. Boston's front office has made its fair share of costly free agent mistakes (J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey, Carl Crawford, et. al.) and couldn't really afford to blow another $50 million when his natural replacement has been an eighth inning beast
I don't want to imply that Paps, who turns 31 on Wednesday, won't be missed because he was nothing short of superb throughout his seven seasons in Boston. After taking over for Keith Foulke as the full-time ninth inning man in 2006, the AL Rookie of the Year runner-up never failed to notch at least 30 saves (averaging 36 per season) and had only one year (his rather disastrous 2010) in which his ERA exceeded 2.94. He proved this year that his skills are still intact, and the four-time All-Star joins Philadelphia (desperately in need of a stable closer after rotating Madson, Antonio Bastardo and sunken investment Brad Lidge) with a distinguished track record as one baseball's premier closers, a healthy, talented, and mostly reliable pitcher.
More importantly for the Phils, he's a battle-tested postseason warrior. The 2007 World Series champ carried a perfect 0.00 ERA through the first 17 playoff appearances before the Angels torched lit him up and swept the Sox in their most recent October showing. He may not be Mariano Rivera, but he's pretty close to the next best thing, and he's got that fierce scowl/glare/you don't want to mess with me face down pat.
All I can say is, I'm glad the planned move to the rotation in 2007 never panned out.
But luckily for the Red Sox, they don't have to go out and spend $40 million on say, a Heath Bell, when they've had their own closer of the future waiting in the wings. Daniel Bard is only 26, throws pure gas and is Papelbon's equal in many respects. Before wearing down in September and costing his slumping squad a handful of precious wins, he had a 2.03 ERA and was enjoying a great follow-up to his marvelous 2010 campaign (1.93 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 227 ERA+). His numbers are excellent across the board, he has a few years of big league experience under his belt, and Papelbon's natural heir seems primed to handle the pressure packed ninth inning duties. Plus, his price tag is only half a million bucks, meaning he makes 1/25th of Papelbon's salary and provides essentially the same production.
Of course, Boston could always leave him entrenched as their setup man and pursue an experienced closer such as Francisco Cordero or Francisco Rodriguez, but such a signing would be expensive. Promoting Bard to closer and either converting someone in the bullpen (Dan Wheeler? Bobby Jenks? my boy Alfredo Aceves?) or signing a new setup man, possibly a former closer like Jonathan Broxton or Matt Capps at a bargain price, would seem to be a much wiser economic decision.
The Sox have many options, but I believe the best one is right in front of them.