Jonathan Papelbon has made no secret during the arbitration process that he wants to get paid what he feels he is worth. Given the propensity of Theo Epstein to let his most expensive players walk -- and given the emergence of youngster Daniel Bard as an option to replace Papelbon -- many believe the Red Sox will make little effort to re-sign Papelbon and instead hand the ball to Bard after the 2011 season.
Many have speculated that the Red Sox will trade Papelbon for prospects even before he hits the open market.
Papelbon, as far as most Red Sox fans are concerned, is a lame duck closer with little chance of sticking around after he's eligible for free agency. Papelbon is going to be too expensive for his own good, or so conventional wisdom has it, and Bard has the type of young, electric arm that could make him the next elite closer in the major leagues.
What if we have it all backwards? What if Bard is the likeliest trade chip? What if Papelbon is going to get his money and is going to emerge from the bullpen to "Shipping Up To Boston" for the next 10 or 12 years?
A reporter in Fort Myers, Fla., asked Papelbon this week what he made of the perception that he was all but gone once he hit free agency.
"I think that’s the perception, that I’m going to go somewhere else, but it’s all a perception," Papelbon said. "Right now, this is the way it’s working out. It’s that simple. It’s one year at a time. It’s working out. Both sides are happy. 'Why would you try to do anything else?' is my way of thinking. Of course I’d love to be with Boston for a long term.
"But this is the way it is right now, and I’m happy going one year at a time. This is the organization I started in. This is the organization that gave me the opportunity to play major league baseball. Of course I’d love to stay here for 15 years. Right now, one year at a time is the way it’s working. I’m happy and everyone else is happy, so why not."
Bard, on the other hand, was asked about the possibility of going back to starting pitching at some point in his career. Starting pitchers, after all, tend to be more valuable than relief pitchers.
"Right now, I'm a reliever," Bard said. "The Red Sox have a lot of starting pitching. As long as I'm with the Red Sox, I'm pretty sure I'm going to be a reliever."
The "As long as I'm with the Red Sox" part of that ought to raise an eyebrow. Bard is a smart guy. He knows what he can do is valuable whether it's as a starter or as a closer. He knows he's more valuable as a starter than as a reliever but isn't going to start any games in Boston. He also has no particular ties to the Red Sox and has no more reason to sign a team-friendly contract than Papelbon does.
Papelbon, despite all appearances, is a smart guy. He knows what he can do is plenty valuable, too. Over the last few seasons, among American League closers, he's in a class with Joe Nathan and Mariano Rivera and pretty much no one else. He also knows that he has a pretty good thing going for him in Boston.
Epstein, of course, is a smart guy, too. He knows what Papelbon can do. He knows what Bard can do. He knows Papelbon will hit free agency after the 2011 season. He knows Bard will start becoming eligible for salary arbitration after the 2011 season -- and while middle relievers don't make much in arbitration, Bard's salary would spike after a year or two as the closer.
Bard, in other words, might wind up just as expensive as Papelbon -- and he might be at least as willing to go elsewhere as Papelbon.
Papelbon has been one of the best relief pitchers in baseball over the past four seasons. Bard looked great in his first stint in the major leagues. Both know they're talented and that they can make a lot of money playing baseball. Assuming Papelbon is the one who's going to wind up in another uniform might be a little bit premature.