Testing the Papelbon Trade Theory

Orioles vs. Red Sox

The popular rumor growing in MLB trade circles is that Red Sox closer and fan favorite, Jon Papelbon, will be traded in the offseason with Billy Wagner assuming closer duties for 2010. With the claims gaining steam, it’s time to look at the Sox’ possible 2010 bullpen scenarios.
The 2009 Jon Papelbon
Jon Papelbon hasn’t been the same JON PAPELBON he was from 2006-2008. It’s somewhat surprising that the baseball community has been as down on Pap as they have been, as he still has a 1.81 ERA and is 34/37 in save opportunities this season.
However, there has been a palpable decline in his numbers and rate indicators this season. While his strikeout rate has been stable since last season, as too has his velocity for the most part, his rising walk rate has been at the root of his relative “struggles” this season.
But the return of the “Old Pap” may not come so swiftly or so easily. In years past, Papelbon has lived off hitters chasing his pitches out of the zone – remember all those high fastballs in the past?
This season, hitters have been adjusting to his approach, swinging at fewer pitches off the plate. Hitters adjusting to Pap’s stuff is not something he has much control over, as he will have to find some other way to get Ks while avoiding walks. This could just be the new norm for Pap, maintaining his unreal strikeout rates while having to cope with increased walks. Still an incredible pitcher, but no longer quite the stud of old.
Don’t bet against Papelbon, however, and don’t get “down” on the pitcher. He’s one of the best relievers in the MLB and will continue to be in the foreseeable future. Boston fans would be wise to avoid the Mariano Rivera treatment, where New York fans bemoan every blown save and every slump as a sign of impending downfall. Sometimes the hardest thing about having something so valuable is dealing with the fear of losing it.
2010 Bullpen Options
Billy Wagner: Wagner has closer experience, exceptional stuff, and has recovered very well from his recent injuries, striking out 11 in 5.2 IP. However, he is a Tommy John surgery removed from his 2007 dominance and cannot be resigned by the Sox without going through free agency first. He’s not the guy you want to call your closer when you break Spring Training. He will test free agency in 2010 and wants to close, which is why the Sox cannot pick up his option.
Takashi Saito: Another effective, but aging veteran in the Sox pen. Good bullpen arm, but has not been the caliber of pitcher you want manning the ninth inning. Has a club option for 2010, and should be a solid middle relief option on the Sox 2010 team.
Hideki Okajima: A great late-inning reliever and lefty arm. Managers hate using lefties to man the ninth inning, so don’t expect to ever see him man the ninth unless there is an injury to a few pitchers. Good pitcher, but not the closer type. The Sox will have to resign him however, as his contract expires at the end of the season.
Manny Delcarmen: Now here’s an interesting name, actually one discussed at the trade deadline as a possible candidate to go to the Nationals for Nick Johnson, where he would become the Washington closer. A great talent who has been one of the more underappreciated relievers in the American League. Sometimes it seems as if the Sox don’t know what they have, though his performance this season has left some room for doubt, as his declining strikeout rate and inflated walk rate bring cause for concern.
It seems like an off-year, as his plate discipline indicators are almost unchanged since 2008 and he’s still throwing plenty of strikes. His fastball velocity is down 1.5 mph from 2008, though it is on par with his ’06 and ’07 seasons, so there’s not much to worry about.
The Sox should lean on him more than they have in the past, though not enough for the ninth inning role. He’s good enough to be a 7th or 8th inning guy and should assume a greater role in the future.
Ramon Ramirez: A player I was excited to see in a Sox uniform coming into this season, though he has disappointed some. While his velocity is up this season, hitters have stopped chasing his pitches out of the zone and are making more contact. The 2008 Ramon Ramirez was good enough to close, but not the ’07 or ’09 version. Best suited for middle relief.
Daniel Bard: He quickly became a fan favorite this year with his 100 mph fastball and blazing start. It wasn’t long ago that his career was on the brink of failure, but to his credit, he has done an amazing job reclaiming his command.
Bard has been unhittable this season, with 57 Ks and 18 BBs in 42.2 IP, yielding a 3.38 ERA and 3.04 FIP ERA. While Bard has an elite fastball, it has been his slider that has seen the most success this year (though setting a hitter up with a 100 mph fastball will make any pitch look devastating). With his stuff, age, and acceptable command, Bard deserves the moniker “closer of the future”.
Bullpen Outlook
Papelbon is still far and away the best pitcher in the Sox bullpen, though the Sox don’t necessarily need him to man the 9th. This does not mean that Boston should trade him, as he is an incredible asset at the back of the bullpen. However, if hitters have, in fact, adjusted to his approach and continue to lay off pitches out of the zone, then the vintage Papelbon may not return.
The Sox bullpen is among the deepest in the league, and there is no reason to believe that a nominal closer, plus two to three very good options should not be able to do just as well.
Projected 2010 Bullpen (Wagner resigned, sans Papelbon)
CL: Wagner
8th Inn: Bard
7th Inn: Ramirez/Delcarmen
6th Inn: Saito/Ramirez/Delcarmen
7th/8th Inning Lefty: Okajima
In this scenario, the bullpen has good depth and the roles seem to fit the players’ abilities well. Wagner is a questionable option for 2010, however. Though Tommy John surgery has a good track record of recovery, Wagner is still in month 11 of 14 of his rehabilitation. He is not out of the woods yet, and the surgery isn’t perfect.
While Wagner has certainly performed well in his short comeback this season, he won’t have pitched more than 20 innings when the season is over, which is not long enough to accurately assess whether Wagner’s command has returned post surgery. With his age and injury history, the closer’s spot will need additional insurance. Should he be injured, the bullpen will look like this:
CL: Bard
8th: Delcarmen
7th: Ramirez
6th: Saito
Lefty: Okajima
This is still a quality alignment, though it has far more questions than with Wagner in the closer’s role. Everyone seems a little overmatched for their role and trusting the 7th AND 8th to both Delcarmen and Ramirez is asking for trouble. One will likely have a turnaround next year and return to their ’08 form, but asking for both is an unreasonable expectation.
The bullpen becomes very unstable with the loss of Papelbon. The Red Sox are a team with tremendous financial resources and are not one who need to walk a tightrope to maximize the trade value of their best assets. Papelbon is not a necessary piece of the 2010 bullpen; even if Wagner does go down to injury, the Sox still have an adequate bullpen for a contending team.
However, the Sox would be very unwise to attempt to trade Papelbon. Don’t expect them to thread the needle and trade their closer. Wagner will close for someone in 2010, just not the Red Sox. Expect Papelbon keep closing out games for Boston next season.