Friday, March 23, 2007
And thus it begins......
Leave it to the Red Sox to create regular season controversy in Spring Training. While the Sox play out the string on its Grapefruit League schedule, they had the "onions" as Bill Raftery would say, to name young flame-thrower Jonathan Papelbon closer. Again. I still haven't decided where I stand on this precarious subject so I'll lay it all out for you the reader.
Going into the season, the Sox as usual have huge expectations (although these are mostly deserved). Boston has the starting pitching and the bats to compete with anybody. The one major weakness? A off-season and spring training long search to find someone, anyone to be the closer. The names of Joel Piniero (too crappy), Mike Timlin (too old) and Brandon Donnelly (not his normal role) have all been leaked as possible closers. The problem is that none of these guys is cut out to be a closer at this point in his respective career, on a World Series contending team no less. It all would be simple if Papelbon hadn't gotten hurt in a meaningless September 1st game vs. the Blue Jays last Fall.
Papelbon's pitching shoulder came out of its socket, due to overuse. I'm no WebMD but I think that be bad. All he did in his rookie year was save 35 games, be named an AL all-star and sure up the closer position from a disgruntled and disinterested Keith Foulke. From the first week of the season (when he assumed the role) until late Summer (when the Sox completely folded), you could make a very could argument that Paps was the top closer in the league. He had 75 strikeouts in 68.1 innings, had an absurd ERA of 0.92 and generally just blew guys away. He relied mostly on a upper 90's fastball but also mixed in a dirty changeup and slider to keep hitters honest. You had complete faith in him, just a few months into his first full league in the Majors. The injury however, changed everything. We don't want him to become the next Eric Gagne (circa 2005-2006). All Winter we were told how he was going to be turned into a starter (what he was coming up through the minors) which would cause less stress on that golden right arm. Also, he'd be rounding out a rotation of Schilling, Beckett, some guy named Dice-K and Wakefield. Not bad. Only problem was that between all the cash Boston spent on Julio Lugo (dry heave), J.D. Drew (I just puked in my mouth) and to talk to Dice-K, they forgot that we had no closer. Short of rounding up bums in Boston, the Sox did everything to figure this out in a Walmart-style fashion. Unfortunately, even in Spring Training (when you're playing Double A and Triple A guys that won't sniff the big leagues), the formidable trio of closers all failed.
Many will say/have said that going to Papelbon means the Sox are pushing the panic button. While that is true in a sense, it's an extremely tough call to make. I think that a dominant closer is more important than a good starter (and let's face it, Paps would only be a #3 this year). Look at Mariano Rivera. Was anyone more important to the Yankees dynasty of the late 90's and early Millenium? Having a lights out closer is huge. Using recent history as an example, the Sox used a closer by committee (bullshit) method which famously imploded in the 2003 playoffs (with a big assist going to manager Grady Little's complete stupidity). In 2004 with Keith Foulke at the end of games, the Red Sox won the World Series. Coincidence? Probably not. The last two World Series champs used younger, more unknown guys-Bobby Jenks of the White Sox and Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals-to close but they similarly got the job done. You have to ride the hot hand. Who knows what to expect from Papelbon? He showed last year many flashes of utter dominance. He's coming off a major pitching injury though. With him, the Sox can get to the promised land. Without him? Yikes.
All I know is that baseball is starting a week from Sunday and I can't wait.