Could Jonathan Papelbon Be Trade Bait?

It still seems way too early to write off Boston's 2010 season, but as of today, the Red Sox stand eight games behind Tampa Bay for first place in the AL East.  The way the Rays and Yankees (when healthy) have played this season, it will be hard for the Red Sox to make a run at either the division lead or the wild card barring either an extended hot streak on their part or a big collapse from one of the leaders.

Should July roll around and the Sox still haven't made their move, club management may decide that adding players would be fruitless and instead turn their attention to reloading for 2011.  Boston is hoping they get some trade offers for the likes of Mike Lowell and David Ortiz, but perhaps the most intriguing possible pick-up for a contender would be Jonathan Papelbon.  The closer is having a solid season (3.15 ERA, 10 saves out of 11 chances), but there are some outliers that suggest Papelbon isn't quite the dominant closer he was just a couple of seasons ago.

Tony Massarotti of the Boston Globe suggests that Papelbon was overworked during the 2008 postseason and has never been quite the same since.  He points to Papelbon's ballooning walk rate, which went from 2.1 BB/9 over the first four years of his career to 3.2 BB/9 in 2009 and 4.5 BB/9 this season.  Papelbon's srikeouts are down too — he has just a 6.8 K/9 ratio this season, well below the 10.4 K/9 average he posted in the first five years of his career.

Papelbon's slight decline could force the Red Sox to make a hard choice when it comes to the prospect of a long-term contract for their star closer.  Papelbon avoided arbitration last winter when he signed a one-year, $9.35MM deal, and he still has one more arbitration year left before becoming a free agent after the 2011 season.  As ESPN's Rob Neyer puts it, since Papelbon is still having an overall good season, "he'll get a raise next year and probably a nice one. Is a reasonably good reliever worth (say) $11 million?"  The presence of Daniel Bard as Boston's closer of the future is even more incentive for the Sox to think about moving Papelbon sooner rather than later.

Given Papelbon's pedigree, the right-hander would likely be a much more reliable midseason addition for a contender than other possible available closers as Matt Capps or Kevin Gregg.  If Brad Lidge can't pull himself together and Jose Contreras comes back to earth, the Phillies could be in the market for a proven closer.  Same with Colorado, should the Franklin Morales/Manuel Corpas tandem not work out.  Even the Angels could be a possibility if they can turn things around — if Brian Fuentes continues to struggle, L.A. might not be comfortable handing the job over to Fernando Rodney.

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