In an upcoming class of free agents flush with solid closers, Red Sox stopper Jonathan Papelbon will arguably be the grand prize. Papelbon, 31 in November, is still in his prime and on track for his sixth consecutive campaign of at least 35 saves in as many seasons as Boston's closer. He didn't merely compile those saves by virtue of simply holding the job; the 2.33 career ERA and 2.68 FIP are befitting a stud closer.
This season, in particular, has been an important one for Papelbon on the heels of a tumultuous 2010. He's posted a 3.14 ERA and 26 saves to date, but if you dig deeper, the advanced estimators like him more than that, enough for a 2.37 xFIP and 1.62 SIERA. If the end-of-season numbers are closer to those figures, Paps will hit the open market on quite the high note.
Papelbon avoided arbitration last offseason for a $12MM salary in 2011, and I'd guess he won't want to take a cut in annual salary (I know, going out on a limb there). And considering three-year deals were handed out like so many Jolly Ranchers to setup men such as Joaquin Benoit and Scott Downs last winter, he'd be silly not to seek a pact of at least that length.
The tricky part is that his most obvious suitor, or perhaps the one that seems the likeliest, is his current team, the Red Sox, and they have plenty of bargaining leverage. Setup man Daniel Bard has emerged as one of the game's elite relievers the past couple years, and Ryan Madson, Heath Bell and Francisco Rodriguez threaten to dent the market for Papelbon, as do older guys like Francisco Cordero, Joe Nathan, Brad Lidge and Jose Valverde, whose respective teams hold club options for 2012.
Bargaining is a ways off yet, but a couple of experts have shared interesting and differing takes recently. One NL GM told Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe that he wouldn't break up the formidable late-innings duo of Bard and Papelbon, and that he thinks Boston will buck up when it comes down to it. Meanwhile, Peter Gammons said last month that if Papelbon is seeking something like three years and $36MM, the Sox will likely allow him to walk.
I think the terms mentioned by Gammons are probably the magic numbers for Papelbon. Consider, for example, that Mariano Rivera will have earned $15MM for five consecutive years from 2008-12 (on three- and two-year contracts), and $36MM for three doesn't seem so unreasonable. Of course, that's a dicey comparison because of Mo's greatness, his inextricable ties to the Yankees organization and so on. But there are parallels. Is Paps the Red Sox's Rivera? More pointedly, will the sides proceed in contract dealings the way the Yanks and Rivera have — knowing that they need each other? My bet is, "yes."