Papelbon's recurring nightmare
Blown save to Angels that ended last season serves as motivation
Jonathan Papelbon hasn't forgotten the way his 2009 season ended, walking off the mound as a loser in October for the first time in his career.
"I got a copy of it,'' he said, referring to footage of the horrific ninth inning in which the Los Angeles Angels rallied from a two-run deficit and eliminated the Boston Red Sox in their AL Division Series, obliterating Papelbon's streak of never having allowed a run in the postseason in the process.
"I get it in my weight room at home and pop it in, use it as motivation,'' said Papelbon, who over and over has watched five Angels reach base, three of them scoring, the deciding two on Vladi Guerrero's sinking line-drive single. "Every time I'm in the gym struggling, feeling like [expletive], I look up at the TV, and it gives me a kick.
"It's something I really had a lot of pride in and cherished, my scoreless postseason run," which hit 26 innings, a major league record. "Obviously, it was disappointing. Any human being who says it was no big deal is full of B.S. But I'm a big guy. The difference between All-Stars and Hall of Famers is that they don't stay in ruts. So I'm going to get in a four-wheel drive and pull right out of that mud hole.''
It is the first full week in January, and Papelbon is home in Mississippi. Just after New Year's, he began his throwing program at Mississippi State in Starkville, where he went to school. He works out with Paul Maholm, the Pirates pitcher, and throws to catcher Craig Tatum, who has a chance to win a backup job with the Orioles after being claimed off waivers from the Reds.
Papelbon's wife, Ashley, is pregnant with the couple's second child, a brother for toddler daughter Parker. The child is due in April.
"Got a name picked out,'' Papelbon says. "Gunner Roberts. The significance? Nothing, man. Just a badass name, so we went with it.''
The TV in his house is always turned to Nick Jr., the Disney Channel or Sprout, he says, so he hasn't been keeping track of the Red Sox's offseason moves.
"I had no idea we got [John] Lackey until [trainer Mike] Reinold came down to see me, just a few days ago,'' he said. "I swear to you. I don't know anything about the ballclub, but I know the words to the 'Mickey Mouse Clubhouse' song.''
The skeptic might recall how Papelbon insisted that his dog ate the ball with which the Red Sox clinched the 2007 World Series -- a story that smacked of urban legend -- but Papelbon pleads that his ignorance is real.
"I heard about [Marco] Scutaro because my mother-in-law told me, and I know about [Jason] Bay because Maholm knew him on the Pirates and told me,'' he said. "And I know about [Mike] Lowell because we have the same agent.
"Personally, I think Mike can still play every day. But this is all part of it: Am I wanted or not wanted? J-Bay, shoot, man, he was a gamer in my opinion. Say what you want about him playing the outfield, but he always hit the cutoff man, and left field in Fenway Park is not an easy place to play. We're going to miss him, no question.''
This week, eligible players were permitted to file for salary arbitration. On Jan. 20, clubs and players will present salary numbers, and if an agreement cannot be struck, a hearing is held in which an arbitrator chooses one number or the other. Since Theo Epstein became general manager after the 2002 season, no Sox player has gone to a hearing. Last winter, Epstein locked up much of the team's homegrown talent to multiyear deals, committing nearly $112 million to Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester. There was one notable omission: Papelbon.
It was not for a lack of trying. The Red Sox last winter offered their closer a two-year deal for about $14.75 million, within a couple hundred thousand dollars of what Papelbon was seeking, according to a source close to the negotiations. "I ixnayed their offer,'' Papelbon said.
Boston Red Sox
Instead, Papelbon, who last winter was eligible for salary arbitration for the first time, agreed to a one-year deal for $6.25 million, more than eight times his 2008 salary of $775,000. The contract was the largest ever for a pitcher -- starter or reliever -- eligible for arbitration for the first time, and was the third highest for any first-time eligible player, topped only by the $10 million the Phillies awarded slugger Ryan Howard in 2008 and the $7.4 million the Marlins awarded first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who is now with Tigers, in 2007.
Now Papelbon is in line for another big raise, one that almost certainly will make him the eighth Sox player to be paid $9 million or more in 2010. Only the Yankees, with 10, have more, according to figures compiled by Cot's Baseball Contracts. The Chicago Cubs also have eight.
Seven big league closers have contracts for $10 million or more. It's reasonable to expect that Papelbon will join them.
"Heck yeah, as far as what me and my brain are thinking,'' Papelbon said, "but I haven't even sat down with my agents [Seth and Sam Levinson] yet. We don't even have a number in place. There haven't been any discussions between me and the Red Sox and my agents at all.''
As Papelbon's salary climbs ever higher, he understands that negotiations might turn more contentious.
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"The thing they'll probably pull is tell us, 'We've got an up-and-coming guy in [Daniel] Bard, this and that. That's fine with me. That's what they have to do in this cat-and-mouse game. But when you look at what I've done so far, you can't compare it to many other closers besides Mo [Rivera].''
Since 2006, when Papelbon became the Boston closer, eight pitchers have had seasons of 35 saves or more, a strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio of 10 or more, and an ERA lower than 2.50. Papelbon has done it three times, and he would have been 4-for-4 except his K/IP ratio was 9.9 in 2006. This past season, while saving 38 regular-season games, he blew just three saves, and he has just 17 career blown saves, an 89 percent conversion rate.
But there were a couple of worrisome issues in 2009: His walks tripled to 24 from 8 the year before, a big reason his strikeout-to-walk ratio dropped to a career-worst 3.17 while his WHIP (walks plus hits per nine innings pitched) climbed to a career-high 1.47.
But it was nothing, Papelbon believes, that should keep him from leaping into the salary class of the game's best closers.
"My whole thing is consistency,'' he said. "I'm not one of these guys with a sub-2 ERA one year and a high-3 the next. My whole thing in all of this is the environment you pitch in. Wouldn't you want a guy to pitch in Boston, New York and Philadelphia who you know has consistently had just three or four blown saves a year. That's a rarity in itself.
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"If in the beginning of the year, you're in Boston or New York or Philadelphia, and somebody tells you this guy is going to blow only three or four saves all year, who else are you going to get to do that, you know?
"Don't get me wrong. This kid [Bard] has got talent through the roof. If I had anything to do with it, I'd want Bard in my 'pen, to set me up. But that's part of the cat-and-mouse game, too.''
Papelbon, who will be eligible for free agency after the 2011 season, said he is willing to keep going year to year until then.
"At the same time, I'm not afraid to show that, hey, I want to be with the Red Sox [in a multiyear deal]. I'd love to have that sense of security of being with a team and knowing, 'Hey, they want me, and I want them, let's have a happy marriage.'
"But what do I have to give up to be in that marriage? Understand, I'm in the prime of my career. Why would I give up something? I'd give up something if it's fair to both sides, but I want to do things for my fellow closers, just like Mo paved the way for me. I want every closer out there, man, to get every penny they deserve.''
And so the cat-and-mouse game is about to begin. The Red Sox, with Bard waiting in the wings, might be at a stage where they 're content to go year to year, too. In the meantime, Papelbon awaits the arrival of spring -- and an end to the rerun that plays over and over in his head.