Thursday, March 22, 2007

Back to Bullpen for Papelbon

Red Sox pitcher Jonathan Papelbon is going back to the bullpen to resume the closer role he filled so well last season. Yahoo News AP wire excerpt:

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Jonathan Papelbon's conversion from closer to starter didn't last long. Papelbon is heading back to Boston's bullpen to fill a major void, though he isn't doing it because an injury to Mike Timlin left the Red Sox without a closer.

"I haven't been sleeping well because there's been that feeling deep down in my heart that I wanted to close," Papelbon said after the Phillies and Red Sox played to a 4-4 tie in 10 innings on Thursday.

Papelbon is coming off a sensational rookie season in which he had 35 saves and an 0.92 ERA. But he was shut down with a month to go because of shoulder problems, and the Red Sox had planned to use him in the rotation to keep him on a more regular schedule.

The Red Sox needed a reliable closer because the 41-year-old Timlin has a strained side muscle and isn't going to be ready to start the season.

Papelbon made the decision to tell manager Terry Francona how he felt about returning to his closer's role earlier this week after consulting with his family and speaking to catcher Jason Varitek.

"He's unique," Francona said. "He's at the top of the list of relievers in baseball. He impacts the game like no other. I'm thrilled we have a young guy that feels enthusiastic about doing a job."

Papelbon allowed one run and two hits in three innings against Philadelphia. Karim Garcia's RBI single in the seventh off Papelbon tied the game at 4.

Julian Tavarez will take over as Boston's fifth starter behind an impressive staff that includes Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield.

Papelbon opened last season with 20 consecutive saves after taking over for injured closer Keith Foulke. The 26-year-old right-hander blew six of his last 21 chances, and missed the final month with a shoulder injury. Overall, Papelbon's rookie year was one for the ages.

Among pitchers who threw more than 50 innings, his ERA was the eighth lowest in major league history and his .167 opponents batting average tied him for the major league record Pedro Martinez set in 2000, when the former Boston ace won the Cy Young Award.

Papelbon's injury led the club to switch him back to the starting rotation because the routine of having to be prepared to pitch every day — and being in games two or three consecutive nights — might have caused some stress. Papelbon pitched almost exclusively as a starter in the minors, but worked out of the bullpen at Mississippi State and was selected as a closer in the fourth round of the 2003 amateur entry draft.

Papelbon pitched 68 1-3 innings in 59 appearances last year. He was 4-2 with 75 strikeouts and only 13 walks.

I think this is probably a good move. The guys the Sox either already had on hand (Tavarez, Manny Delcarmen), or brought aboard through off-season transactions (Joel Piniero) haven't been terrible, but they haven't been dominant. Not that such things matter a hell of a lot in spring training. In 2004, Keith Foulke had an absolutely BRUTAL spring training. I think he gave up something like 467 hits and 258 runs in 13 innings in Fort Meyers (not really). But, once the real season began, Foulke was golden, and was a major part of the 2004 WORLD SERIES CHAMPION RED SOX!

Papelbon would have made a fine starter, of that I am sure. But when you see what he did closing games last season, you'd be a fool to mess with that type of success. Will he again have a sub one ERA? Probably not. Hell, betting on consistent pitching is a fool's game. But if we are discussing probabilities, the notion that Papelbon could throw another 70 innings in 60-65 games with a strikeout per inning and 30-35 saves is not out of the question. I'm just glad the Sox braintrust didn't wait until mid-May after ten blown saves to act.

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