BALTIMORE — Jonathan Papelbon, 2.0? Why not? No harm in giving it a shot and seeing where it goes. If it goes nowhere, release him. The Red Sox appear to want Papelbon, based on the fact that manager John Farrell said he reached out to him by phone Tuesday to say he would welcome Papelbon back, even though he’s a different version of the young All-Star flamethrower he was the first time around.
The question is, if Papelbon has interest from other teams who are more in need, does he bypass a chance to come back to Boston, where he’s said he’s always wanted to return, or take a bigger role with teams such as the Pirates, Cardinals, or Cubs, all three of whom have bullpen openings?
“There’s no question he’s a different pitcher now than nine years ago,” said Farrell. “There are a lot of saves in between and a lot of pitches thrown. The one thing that you look at over the course of time and follow scouting reports, he’s evolved as a quote, unquote pitcher versus reliance solely on velocity.
“With the exception of a stretch in July when the performance was sub or less than what Pap is accustomed to, he’s been an effective pitcher. Coming back to Boston — if that were to happen — he’d be well aware of his environment and the expectation.”
Papelbon, 35, was released by the Washington Nationals, with whom he had become ineffective and disruptive — or he certainly was when he attempted to choke superstar Bryce Harper last season when Harper didn’t run out a ground ball. The Nationals traded for Pittsburgh closer Mark Melancon and Papelbon lost his closer job. Before his Nationals stint, he had become unhappy in Philadelphia when the team began losing and he said some unflattering things about certain teammates.
“Pap is a unique guy in many ways,” Farrell continued. ”He’s a guy who thrives in the moment and thrives to be in critical spots in the game. While that closer role might be a thing behind him, the intangibles as a competitor haven’t changed.
“We don’t know if he’s coming back here, but going back to where you’ve been before there’s a lot of known aspects to that. Certainly the electricity of Fenway brings out the best in everybody. And you see it when visiting teams come in. We see it with our own guys. Our fans energize every player who steps on the field. If this comes to fruition, whether it adds some adrenaline remains to be seen.”
Farrell admits that he didn’t know what role he would use him in.
“As far as a role it wouldn’t be as a closer,” Farrell said. “These are hypotheticals we’re talking about. I can’t speak for Pap. I don’t know what other offers are presented or what those roles might be. I guess the best way to summarize it, if he were to choose to come here it would not be as a closer.”
The other consideration is the disruption that he’s come to be known for. Papelbon was never a problem in Boston. He was never a distraction.
Craig Kimbrel, by the way, has always admired Papelbon. He told this reporter in spring training that Papelbon was one of the closers he looked up to, but had only met him once. Papelbon left Boston after 2011 and signed a five-year, $61 million deal with the Phillies. It was there he enjoyed some success, but also started to have problems with teammates.
Sox first base coach Ruben Amaro Jr. was the Phillies GM at the time and admits there were some issues, but Amaro seemed to think they stemmed from Papelbon’s competitiveness and his desire to be on a winner.
“He had trouble with the transition that we were going through then,” Amaro said. “When we were viable, he did a great job for us. He has more saves than any closer in Phillies history. He did his job.”
Amaro admitted Papelbon’s velocity began to decrease over time, but Amaro thought the commitment to the slider and the deception of his delivery continued to make him successful.
Amaro jumped on Papelbon early in the free agent process, signing him in November 2011. The Red Sox let him go without an offer made. Papelbon had a figure in mind and Amaro was willing to go there.
“We needed a closer,” the former GM recalled. “We were simultaneously talking to Ryan Madson and Papelbon and I decided on Papelbon. I signed who I thought was the best player for our team at the time.”
When he was trying to get out of Philly, Papelbon told reporters that Boston was definitely a place he’d love to pitch again. He was close with both Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia. The Cubs and Red Sox are definitely two teams in the hunt.
It makes sense to give a look to Papelbon, a six-time All-Star with 368 career saves.
First of all, it costs virtually nothing — about $130,000, the prorated portion of the minimum salary because Washington is responsible for the prorated portion of the $11 million they owe him.
As Farrell pointed out, adrenaline goes a long way for relievers. His 91-mile-per-hour fastball might tick up in the right situation. With Junichi Tazawa fading, it may behoove the Red Sox to add another late-inning guy. A team can’t have enough of them, especially ones with experience.
Still, it makes more sense for Papelbon to go elsewhere.
The Pirates, for instance, traded away Melancon at the deadline, so Papelbon would fit there. The Cardinals could also use him, with Trevor Rosenthal and Seth Maness on the disabled list. so opportunities are a plenty in St. Louis.
There’s no harm in trying this for the Red Sox. Relievers are reborn all the time. And this might be Papelbon’s chance to do that for himself.