- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He is in his free-agent year, which already makes this season unlike any other that has preceded it.
He is coming off his worst season, one in which he blew eight saves, most in the American League.
He will no longer be the only closer in town with a World Series ring when camp opens on Sunday, the Red Sox having signed Bobby Jenks over the winter.
He was pretty much shocked into laughter when he heard the Sox had tried to sign his idol, Mariano Rivera, leaving him even more uncertain where he fit into Red Sox plans.
He expects that the first time he blows a save, there will be people calling for Terry Francona to switch closers, the way the Red Sox manager did back in Texas on the first weekend of the season a few years ago, ousting Keith Foulke for the brash kid from Mississippi State who had shown no fear ever since he threw at Sammy Sosa in spring training.
He, Jonathan Papelbon, obviously has a lot to think about this spring, doesn't he?
"They don't pay me to think," Papelbon said here Monday morning, one of the early arrivals in camp. "If I'm a thinker, then I'm not a closer. That's the way I look at it, man. I don't think, man, I just do. Sometimes that gets me into trouble."
A closer, Papelbon insists, does not have the luxury of thinking, which might come as news to Dr. Mike Marshall, who once held a Ph.D and closed for the Dodgers.
But while he may like to perpetuate the image of a mindless chowderhead with a Southern drawl, it isn't that simple. It never is. Papelbon was smart enough, for example, to win a high-stakes game of not settling for the security of a long-term deal to go year to year in salary arbitration, leaving him with an annual intake this season of $12 million, which puts him very close to the ceiling of players at his position.
It is that salary that almost certainly guarantees this will be his last season in a Red Sox uniform, especially when the Red Sox now have two cheaper alternatives going forward: Jenks, who helped the White Sox win a World Series in 2005, and Daniel Bard, who throws even harder than the young Papelbon did.
Papelbon understands this.
"I realize my situation," he said. "I realize the possibilities that could and could not happen, and I accept them and I move on. I'll go out and try and win a championship. When that's all said and done, whatever happens, happens."
Talk long enough to Papelbon, and you quickly learn that he thinks about plenty -- that in order to avoid repeating the disasters of last season, for example, he's going to have to adjust his approach to hitters, who in 2010 had the upper
hand in that eternal cat-and-mouse game between pitcher and batsman.
"You'll see a difference right off the bat," he said. "I will be throwing a lot more off-speed. I'll be throwing my split a lot more, my slider, I'll be throwing a heck of a lot more. The last couple of years, I've been able to develop those pitches, and the biggest thing I've gained from game experience is to learn what not to do with them.
"There will be a lot of situations where, instead of pitching off my fastball, I'll be pitching off my split, pitching off my slider, earlier in the count."
Where the thinking must stop, he says, comes to those things he can't control, though he confesses that the news that general manager Theo Epstein had signed Jenks to a two-year deal did cause him a few moments of uncertainty.
"Yeah, I think it's natural, man, it's human," he said. "'OK, well they're signing another great closer and, you know, what are they planning to do with him, what are they planning to do with me, blah, blah, blah. I think your natural instincts, you ask yourself questions, but I think a day later they were all answered.
"At first I didn't know what to think, but Theo left me a voice mail, I talked with Tito. I think they did a real good job with that. Theo did a real good job of saying, 'This is the bullpen I've got, that I'm putting together. This is the bullpen I'm going to try and win a World Series with.' You can't fault anybody for that."
Does he really expect Jenks, who has closed since his rookie season, to be willing to accept a lesser role, especially when the money is in closing, not in being a setup man?
"I wouldn't say it's a lesser role," Papelbon said. "I'm sure Bobby thought about it before he signed. He's coming to a ballclub he knows made big strides this offseason and has a lot of pieces of the puzzle to go win another World Series for himself.
"He's going to have a big role, a huge role. A huge role," Papelbon added. "And who's to know what the future holds for him?"
Papelbon said he and Jenks have not been in touch since Jenks signed with Boston, but said they were "tight."
"We got to know each other at All-Star Games, from being in the same league," he said. "We even talked about contract situations a couple of times. We told each other what we were going to try and get."
Papelbon said it bothered him to know that some of Jenks' personal problems had spilled into the public arena, most recently when the son of White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen tweeted about him.
"He's a good dude, a really good guy," Papelbon said. "I guess the media have exploited some issues he's had, but you know what, who doesn't? Who doesn't have [issues]? Show me the guy with the perfect life, the perfect wife, the perfect family, the perfect whatever and I'll tell you to kiss my [derriere]. That's not the way it works."
Papelbon said he fully anticipates that the first time he stumbles, Jenks -- or Bard -- will quickly become the darlings of the talk shows and columnists demanding that Francona make a change. He saw what happened to David Ortiz last spring.
"I understand that," he said. "It doesn't bother me. I don't worry about those things. I don't know why. It's not that I don't care. I guess I'm just confident enough in my own ability. I can go get the job done in Boston with a great group of guys, or in Japan if I have to. I'm just that way."
Still, it came as a jolt to hear that the Sox had also taken a run at Mariano Rivera, the great Yankees closer, offering him a two-year deal. New York, which had hoped to re-sign its 41-year-old icon for one more season, had little choice but
to match the Sox's offer.
Papelbon suspects the Red Sox were playing a little gamesmanship with the Bombers. Still
"I laughed. I did," he said. "And I laughed because it was like, 'Wow, this is getting kind of crazy. Oh my God, what's going on here?' But that's part of the business side of things. That was a pretty high-intensity week.
"Would Mo have ever accepted? I don't know, man, you've got to ask Mo. Who knows?"
Papelbon acknowledges that it's not out of the question he could still be traded, though he considers it unlikely.
"I don't know if it would make much sense," he said. "Then again, maybe there's a scenario out there that does make sense that I don't know about.
"It's not my job. It's Theo's job, and l think he's done a damn good job this offseason," Papelbon said. "You've got to give credit where credit is due. I think he looked at the whole picture -- 'Where are my gaps, where are my holes?' -- and he filled them.
"What more can you ask for from your boss than allowing you to go out and do the best job you can do. You go out and do your job, and things will fall in place. That's what I'm going to do. If I do my job, everybody else is going to do their job
and hopefully at the end of the season we'll be raising a couple of trophies."
Now that's something worth thinking about.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
Jonathan Papelbon says his uncertain future in Boston won't hold him back.