Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Saturday, March 24, 2007

PAP'S BACK IN THE PEN

The Sox May Have Found a Closer, But They've Lost An Important Part of the Rotation

So, the Sox finally have a closer. Jonathan Papelbon will once again don a cape and then sprint out of the bullpen to save the day for the Boston Red Sox. That's the good news.

By settling the closer question, the other relievers -- Brendan Donnelly, Mike Timlin, Joel Piniero, Hideki Okajima and JC Romero -- will be allowed to fall into more natural set-up roles, where they've had success in the past.

Ultimately, none of the candidates auditioning for the part were well-suited for the role of closer. So the Sox turned their attention to last year's leading man.

The fact is, no one else steeped up, Timlin is injured, and the trade market is too weak or too pricey. That's what made this move a reality -- no matter what management says.

"We would be beyond foolhardy to make a decision like this based on our short-term needs," general manager Theo Epstein said during a conference call. "This decision was based on what's best for Jonathan Papelbon over the next 10 years."

Don't be surprised to see Papelbon back in the rotation long before then. He may say that closing is "what I want to do for the rest of my career." I'm not buying it. He's just being a team player who is saying all the right things. For that, he should be commended.

What of the shoulder subluxation that sidelined Papelbon for the final month of last season? Apparently it's completely healed now. Medical tests showed that the powerful righty has "one of the two or three strongest" shoulders of all the pitchers on the Sox staff. That should reassure all Red Sox fans.

But while Papelbon makes the Sox bullpen considerably stronger, his absence makes the starting rotation significantly weaker. I mean, Julian Tavarez is now the number five starter, and Tim Wakefield becomes a number four? Wakefield would be better suited as a number 5, and who has any confidence whatsoever in Julian Tavarez? Do you? Well, apparently Theo Epstein does.

"I still like our starting rotation," said general manager Theo Epstein, who gave his seal of approval to moving Tavarez to the back end. "Schilling, Beckett, Matsuzaka, and Wakefield, those four components remain the same. Julian Tavarez did very well in that role late last year.

"He got on a roll, and he deserves the opportunity to start."

Well, at least someone thinks so.

"I think we have some significant depth. There's Kyle Snyder, and Jon Lester is just getting stretched out. Kason Gabbard, Devern Hansack, David Pauley."

Well, I agree with that. With the exception of Pauley, any one of them would make a better fifth starter than Tavarez, and perhaps a better fourth starter than Wakefield.

Over 10 innings this spring, Gabbard, who turns 25 next month, has a nifty 2.70 ERA. And he impressed the brass last season in his four starts. Pitching 25 2/3 innings in 2006, Gabbard gave up just 24 hits and had a 3.51 ERA. The youngster made a good case for himself and appears to be a Major League-ready pitcher.

Snyder's recent performance has increased his stock and the Sox are determined to keep him on the roster. Over 9 1/3 innings this spring, the 29-year-old Snyder has compiled a 2.88 ERA. The 6'8" righty says he's finally feeling healthy for the first time in years.

Hansack, also 29, has had an impressive spring as well, and reinforced the notion that he is ready to contribute to the big league club now.

But none of them have proven themselves to the extent of the 23-year-old lefty Jon Lester, who went 7-2 with a 4.76 in 15 starts last season.

But the Sox rotation was weak last year, and the team needed to install two new quality starters to become a World Series caliber team once again. Now they are left with just one new quality starter, Daisuke Matsuzaka. Having Papelbon, another 26-year-old, in the rotation was supposed to offset the fact that two-fifths of that staff are 40-something pitchers.

And it cannot be overlooked that Tim Wakefield has a career winning percentage of just 53%, and a career WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) of 1.34. That's the stuff of a number five pitcher.

At this point, Gabbard, Snyder or Hansack seem better suited for the five spot than Tavarez, and Wakefield assumes the four simply due to experience. But seniority alone won't cut it if the knuckle-baller struggles again this year. He was entirely outmatched last year in the two spot against other teams' second best pitcher.

Don't count on the current arrangement lasting too long. My bet is that the Tavarez experiment doesn't last, the Sox will find another closer at some point, and Papelbon will eventually become a starter, as originally intended.

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

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