Papelbon always imagined himself in pinstripes. He just didn't think they would be red.
But if there was ever a winter for the Red Sox to lose their closer, this might be it. There are other options, including some good ones, and the Tampa Bay Rays just proved you can recycle a cast-off such as Kyle Farnsworth to close and still make it to the postseason.
The dead giveaway that Papelbon would not be coming back to Boston came earlier this week, when reports circulated that the Phillies were planning to give a four-year, $44 million deal to Ryan Madson, a 31-year-old reliever with exactly one season's experience as a closer.
If Madson could command that kind of deal from the Phillies, the market for Papelbon, it was clear, was not one the Sox would be dabbling in, not in this winter of preaching fiscal prudence when it comes to free agents. In the end, it mattered only to Madson that his deal with the Phillies collapsed, because Philadelphia pushed an even bigger pile of cash in front of Papelbon -- four years, $50 million, with a vesting option that could push the deal over $60 million (all, of course, pending a physical).
Papelbon's timing was exquisite. He saved what was arguably his best year for his walk year, and there was never any doubt -- not after he had turned down a chance to sign multiyear deals earlier in his career in order to collect top dollar year to year in the arbitration process -- that he was going to the team that showed him the money. And no closer has ever gotten a bigger deal than the one just landed by Papelbon.
New GM Ben Cherington saw it coming. That's why, he said Friday, the Sox never made Papelbon an offer. No way, he said, to "bridge the gap" between what Papelbon was bound to get and what the Sox were willing to pay, especially this early in the process. And there was no last-second call from Papelbon's agents offering the Sox a chance to trump the Phillies' offer. Cherington said the Sox weren't owed one, not when both sides were clear on where the other stood.
Papelbon will be missed here. He was pressure-proof, he was terrific theater and he was accountable, qualities possessed by all the great closers. Too bad he will not be able to remember his final appearance in a Sox uniform fondly -- this past season, the Sox were 77-0 in games they led after eight innings until Papelbon gave it up to Baltimore in Game No. 162, the one that ended their month of infamy and eliminated them from the postseason. But Papelbon always said one of his greatest character traits is amnesia, so he'll get over it.
Papelbon's departure just made Cherington's job that much harder. Barely a month into his term, Cherington has to pick the right manager, the right pitching coach and now the right closer, in a place where mistakes go unforgiven.
The guess here is that Cherington has settled on a manager -- team sources say he is extremely high on Dale Sveum -- and is just going through the process, making sure his judgment is sound. Torey Lovullo, who interviewed Friday, will be a quality manager someday. Gene Lamont, who will interview Saturday, has had his day, although he could yet wind up in Boston as bench guru to Sveum, who played for him when both were in Pittsburgh.
The new manager will have a say in the selection of the pitching coach, and both might be given a voice in how the Sox conduct their search for a closer. The last time the Sox gave a closer a long-term deal was the winter of 2003, when then-GM Theo Epstein took Keith Foulke to watch the Bruins, plied him with lots of refreshment and gave him a three-year, $20.75 million deal with an option for a fourth year. Without Foulke, the Sox don't win the World Series in 2004. But that October cost Foulke dearly physically; he was never the same.
There was no way the Sox were going to give Pap four years, not at this stage of the process, not when their next closer might already be on their roster -- Daniel Bard, who was everybody's pick as heir apparent until he imploded in a shocking September, one that left him saying at the end that he didn't pitch as badly as it looked. It is now up to Cherington & Co. to make that calculation, to decide whether Bard has the right stuff to close or whether the team will be better served with him as a starter, a discussion Cherington acknowledged has already taken place with Bard, but without resolution.
There is one other internal candidate who should not be dismissed altogether, although he comes with an enormous question mark: Bobby Jenks. He still is recovering from an embolism and is looking at a back procedure in December, but Cherington said that barring a setback, he should be throwing again sometime in spring training. Not a guy you hang your hat on, to be sure, but a potential comeback story.
Cherington on Friday reiterated the need for depth in the bullpen and the rotation, which suggests the Sox might feel that the money they would have spent on Papelbon could be spread out among multiple additions, from a field that still includes Madson, Heath Bell, Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez, Brad Lidge, Frank Francisco and Francisco Cordero. Stuffwise, Bard is better than the lot of them, especially with Lidge and Nathan coming off injuries, but the Sox might be in a position to make some short-term commitments that could well pay off.
Will the ninth inning be more perilous than it was in 2011? Sure. The position comes with year-to-year "volatility," as Cherington noted. Remember, Papelbon blew eight saves in 2010.
But it's a gamble the Sox are willing to take. Having shed Theo Epstein and Terry Francona, this is already a year of living dangerously for the Sox; losing Papelbon just made the safety net that much smaller.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.