Thursday, March 22, 2007
Fantasy Spin: Papelbon to Close
By Nate Ravitz
If at first you don't succeed, lie, lie again.
To open the 2007 season, the closer for the Boston Red Sox will be ... Jonathan Papelbon.
We were lied to, my friends, and the repercussions of this go well beyond the realm of fantasy baseball. For months, all we heard was that Papelbon was moving to the starting rotation, no looking back. The Red Sox spent the offseason stockpiling bullpen arms like David Ortiz collects game-winning RBIs. The official party line was that Papelbon's shoulder couldn't handle the stress of pitching three or four times per week. Brendan Donnelly was acquired from the Angels, and Joel Pineiro, Hideki Okajima and J.C. Romero arrived via free agency. Between that group, veterans Mike Timlin and Julian Tavarez and youngsters Craig Hansen, Manny Delcarmen and Devern Hansack, the BoSox hoped to find a new closer.
The early returns weren't good. Timlin came down with a strained oblique and will start the year on the disabled list. With the exception of Okajima -- who is viewed as more of a lefty specialist -- and Hansack, every one of the other candidates has been an unmitigated disaster this spring.
So now we're back to Papelbon, he of 35 saves, 0.92 ERA and 0.78 WHIP last season. So why am I underwhelmed?
Listen, there's no question that Papelbon can do the job. His numbers last season were fantastic, specifically his 75 strikeouts against only 13 walks in 68 plus innings. He was the No. 3 closer in fantasy baseball last season, and that was without pitching in September. The problem? Four months of closing resulted in a bum shoulder that shut Papelbon out of the playoff chase. We were repeatedly led to believe that the high-stress routine of warming up and pitching (or not pitching) several times per week was the problem.
Team sources told ESPN's Erin Andrews that Papelbon won't throw when he is tired, and he won't appear in more than three games in a row. Um ... how many closers do pitch more than three games in a row? If this is truly the plan, the Sox aren't exactly giving Papelbon the kid-glove treatment.
Desperation should not be a major component of important decisions, but that's clearly what's driving this move. The Sox are callously -- and uncharacteristically -- disregarding the best interests of both Papelbon and their franchise in the interests of a short-term benefit.
With all of that said, as fantasy players we don't get to decide the best interests of a player or a franchise. All we can do is take what we know and apply it to our own rosters. So how do we view Papelbon in the prism of the bullpen for 2007?
There's no reason to think Papelbon won't be successful in the role. The Red Sox have good starting pitching and an excellent offensive attack. Papelbon will get plenty of save chances, and he'll convert an extremely high percentage of them. If not for concerns about his shoulder, he'd be a no-brainer as a top five fantasy closer. The shoulder, however, remains a major concern. It's not quite as troublesome as Eric Gagne's elbow, Jason Isringhausen's hip or Brad Lidge's overall psyche, but it's a very large portion of the equation when evaluating Papelbon's place among the other top closers.
A quick straw poll of ESPN.com fantasy staff revealed that Papelbon would rank seventh or eighth at the position if viewed exclusively as a closer. None of us could, in good conscience, rank him ahead of Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, B.J. Ryan, Billy Wagner or Trevor Hoffman. There was debate about whether Papelbon belonged ahead of Huston Street.
Right now, there are two main risks associated with Papelbon.
1. He'll work as a closer and break down.
2. He'll work as a closer for a short period of time and then transition to being a marginally-effective starter.
Neither one of those scenarios is a stretch. The bottom line is that Papelbon carries a ton of risk this season. He could be one of the best closers in the game, but let someone else take the risk. The Red Sox sure are.
Nate Ravitz covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com.