Papelbon not medically cleared to close games

Updated: February 6, 2007, 5:45 PM ET
Associated Press

BOSTON -- Terry Francona doesn't expect Jonathan Papelbon to move back into the bullpen, even though it would make the Boston manager's life easier.

Closing Time?
Boston Red Sox
With last year's closer, Jonathan Papelbon (35 saves), not medically cleared to finish games for the Red Sox in 2007, Boston will have to find a new fireman. Among the candidates:

Mike Timlin: 139 career saves; 9 last season
Julian Tavarez: 22 career saves; 1 last season
Brendan Donnelly: 4 career saves; 62 relief appearances for Angels in '06
Joel Pineiro: 1 career save; 148 of 185 career appearances are starts
Craig Hansen: 0 career saves; 2005 first-round draft pick
Manny Delcarmen: 0 career saves; Todd Helton deal reportedly fell through because Red Sox wouldn't include him in deal.

"If I had my druthers, he would be our closer," Francona said Tuesday, a day before heading to Florida to get an early start on spring training. "It's not happening. We have to respect the medical people's advice."

Papelbon was thrust into the closer's role as a rookie in 2006 when Keith Foulke struggled to recover from back, elbow and knee injuries. Papelbon saved 35 games in 41 tries and was the runner-up for AL Rookie of the Year despite a shoulder injury that caused him to cut his season short in September.

Because of the injury -- a tired shoulder, but short of the torn labrum he feared -- doctors recommended that Papelbon pitch in the rotation this year so he would have a more regular and predictable schedule.

But the Red Sox do not have a closer as spring training approaches, a major hole after an offseason spending spree that included Daisuke Matsuzaka ($103 million), J.D. Drew ($70 million) and Julio Lugo ($36 million).

Francona said it's possible Papelbon will wind up in the bullpen, but only if the anointed closer fails, Papelbon struggles as a starter and the doctors OK the move.

"I suppose the possibility exists, but I think it's a long shot," Francona said, adding such a move would come "way into the season."

Instead, Francona repeated that the closer will likely emerge from the group that includes Joel Pineiro, Brendan Donnelly, Mike Timlin and Julian Tavarez. Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen are also competing for jobs as relievers.

"We feel initially the closer will emerge from four right-handers," pitching coach John Farrell said. "It is our goal to definitely name one closer, so other roles fall in line as we get closer to the start of the season."

Red Sox pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to spring training on Feb. 16. Matsuzaka is expected the night before, when he's supposed to meet with the crush of media from the U.S. and Japan that will chronicle his every move this season.

Francona said he was infected with his usual winter optimism.

"I'm 24 hours from being on a plane, getting out of here," he said. "That's a great feeling for baseball people."

In other comments, Francona said:

• Starter Curt Schilling's announcement that he would like to play another season might come to nothing. "A year is a long time. He might change [his mind] again," Francona said. "What's important to me it us trying to win now. Whether he pitches three more years or one more year, there's no doubt you're going to get the best out of him."

• Outfielder Manny Ramirez was content, even though the team wasn't able to fulfill his trade request. "I think he's OK. I don't think there's any problem," Francona said.

• Starter Jon Lester, who is recovering from lymphoma, will report to spring training but be encouraged to go slowly. "He doesn't want to hear any of it," Francona said. "But he's a smart enough kid to understand. He's had a traumatic winter."

Francona said one of the first items on his spring training agenda was to talk with Papelbon about putting too much pressure on himself. Papelbon said last month that he wants to prove himself as a starter; "I told Theo the other day, 'I guess I'm going to have to go out and win five in a row to quiet everybody,"' Papelbon said.

"We want him to understand it's going to be a long season," Francona said. "That will be the first thing we talk about."

Also Tuesday, the Red Sox invited 18 non-roster players to spring training: pitchers Abe Alvarez, Adam Bernero, Mike Burns, Bryan Corey, Runelvys Hernandez, and Travis Hughes; catchers Dusty Brown, Kevin Cash, and Alberto Castillo; infielders Jeff Bailey, Luis Jimenez, Joe McEwing, Ed Rogers, Bobby Scales, and Chad Spann; and outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury, Alex Ochoa, and Kerry Robinson.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press