The committee is officially closed, and the old guard has been reinstated.
After Boston Red Sox officials insisted throughout the offseason that he would be firmly planted in the 2007 starting rotation, pitcher Jon Papelbon is moving back to the closer spot, resolving the team's biggest offseason quandary.
Back to the Bullpen
Papelbon himself emphatically requested that he return to the role that he so overwhelmingly dominated last season. Despite insistence that relievers Joel Pineiro, Julian Tavarez, Manny Delcarmen, Brendan Donnelly, Craig Hansen and Mike Timlin would compete for the spot, management found it hard to deny the position to the 26-year-old who had 35 saves and a 0.92 ERA last season. His return is especially welcome after the 41-year-old Timlin (oblique) went down with a side muscle strain in late February. Timlin is expected to begin the season on the disabled list.
The organization has long had plans to shift him into the rotation because of his four-pitch attack, but his fantastic rookie campaign made Bostonians believe that they could have a dominant fireman. With past closer committees biting Boston in the rear, they realized that they needed stability in the back of the bullpen.
Papelbon introduced some outstanding stuff last year, rocking hitters to sleep with four different pitches in 68 1/3 IP in 59 appearances. He drove fear into the hearts of hitters, making them feel entirely uncomfortable in the box. As a closer, that's the most effective weapon in those late innings. It's hard to find fault in a guy who strikes out more than a batter per inning.
The thing was, the Red Sox had projected him as a starter ever since he left the Mississippi State, where, ironically, he closed some games for the Bulldogs. Of Papelbon's 58 minor league appearances, though, 48 were starts. With a 3.05 ERA and 9.59 K/9 in the minors, the Red Sox thought they had themselves a rock-solid starter. The plan was to ease him into the transition into the majors through the bullpen. The problem: Papelbon sort of dominated in the last inning, helping to hold together a broken Red Sox team. Papelbon had an impressive debut in 2005, when he went 3-1 with a 2.65 in 17 games, including three starts. He entered 2006 without a spot in the rotation, but trouble was brewing in the Boston bullpen. The team's closer, Keith Foulke, was struggling to recover from knee surgery that ended his 2005 season. The rest is history.
After earning 20 consecutive saves to open the season, in June Papelbon suffered his first blown save but recovered to earn the win. In August, he blew three saves, one each to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Kansas City Royals and New York Yankees. Teams might have been catching up with his timing and pitch selection. His August slide can probably be attributed to his increasing workload. In that month, he threw more pitches than any other reliever in the bigs. That likely also contributed to his shoulder injury, suffered at the beginning of September. With Boston sliding in the playoff chase, the Sox eventually shut him down for the season.
The 2007 Season
Papelbon will now go into the season without worrying about adjusting to a 200-plus innings pitched workload. He won't have to worry about how that extra curveball in the seventh inning will strain his arm. He has the perfect pitching mentality for a closer.
His situation is looking a lot sunnier. The Sox brought in Far East dynamo Daisuke Matsuzaka to improve an already elite rotation. They also bolstered their pen by signing the former All-Star reliever for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Donnelly, as well as former Minnesota Twins reliever J.C. Romero and another Japanese import, Hideki Okajima.
One caveat: Early reports say that due to last year's shoulder injury, he will be handled carefully. He will not pitch in three consecutive games, and he will refrain from throwing if he shows any symptoms of fatigue.
This is a boon for those fantasy owners who drafted Papelbon with hope that the Sox would insert him back into ninth-inning duties. Now, those drafters who originally expected a 14-win starter in a transition phase now get an up-and-coming elite stopper finishing for one of the league's best offenses and most intriguing pitching staffs. Remember, though, that he'll be limited early on. Here, Boston is thinking of the future, not of the 2007 fantasy drafter.
Of course, those who passed on Papelbon the starter are now kicking themselves - or throwing their computers out the window.
These early indicators should not deter you from taking Papelbon as one of your top two closers, even with the potential for a sophomore slump hanging over his head. He should now reach his draft apex in the fifth or sixth round, because he's highly unlikely to last until the seventh. Even with his limited setup men, he can still offer the goods of a top saves contributor. Fantasy owners remember what he did last year. The old adage says to avoid paying for saves, but to get Papelbon, you may have to do just that.
Draft Papelbon accordingly. He's officially reinstated as the chairman in Boston.
About Tim Heaney
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum, who competes in the prestigious LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.
He appears frequently, including every Sunday, on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, as well as every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.
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