Postgame Spread
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Friday, March 23, 2007

Just When I Thought I Was Out...    

Jon Papelbon is the closer again.  And just like that, the team looks that much better on paper.  Julian Tavarez will fill it for the time being, until Jon Lester or Kason Gabbard makes the big club an offer they can't refuse.

The interesting thing to me is how closely Paps' journey  followed the post-World Series Red Sox' trademark three-act story arc:

  1. Revelation of a hard-line stance with a difficult-to-criticize rationale
  2. Insistence on their seriousness all winter, forcing everyone to come to grips with the decision
  3. A complete 180 on the eve of the season, followed by public quotes like "Boston's where I belong, love that dir-ty wa-ter" and so on

Sound familiar?  That's because you've heard it before.  Remember the Theo Epstein "leave of absence" a couple years back?  Or the team's annual half-assed attempts to trade Manny Ramirez?  Same deal.  And now the Paps thing is framed almost as a tale of redemption, a comforting return to normalcy, a reassertion of Paps' true self or whatever.  He's a modern-day Prodigal Son, except without the part about being a dick.  I guess I don't necessarily believe they fabricated this whole thing (my gut says this was sincerely Papelbon's doing, and only his) but I sure as shit have my doubts with these clowns.  Well, no matter.  What's done is done, and I don't read the papers anyway.  What's important is that the bullpen's in much better shape.

So, let the Paps-Mo debate resume!  This is as good a time as any to remind folks that Papelbon's ERA never rose above 1.00 in the 2006 season.  He spent one game at 1.00 exactly... that's it.  If Paps had made it through September healthy, his numbers would have been most closely compared to Dennis Eckersley's 1990 (0.61 ERA, 73/4 K/BB ratio) which is far and away the definitive closer season.  So as closers go, you'd have Eckersley, and then you'd have Papelbon.  Hmm.  That was as a rookie, by the way.  Mo's 2005 comes close, but with that beefy 1.38 ERA, a full 2006 for Paps would have bested it.  Even with the praise and hero worship he's received in New England, I don't think the magnitude of Papelbon's dominance last season has been acknowledged properly.  It amazes me that a nearly-full season of sub-1.00 ERA could be underrated, but I honestly believe that to be the case.

Anyway, now all the Sox need from the middle relief corps (Timlin, Donnelly, Romero, Delcarmen, Hansen, Okajima, Tavarez once he vacates the rotation) is for them to absorb enough bullets to get to Papelbon.  HA!  Not a single one of those guys can be counted on.  Normally Timlin would be, but he's 40 and injured, which takes him out of the running.  This group is a real mess right now.  You certainly can't blame the Sox for trying so hard to land Scott Linebrink or Chad Qualls.  The Sox really need someone they can count on in the eighth inning, just to take the pressure of Timlin and friends.  If they don't, I can't imagine them making much noise in the playoffs (if they even get there).

Still, the Sox look like a legitimate contender on paper, and at least the equal of New York.  But this, also, is a story we've heard many, many times before.  The Yankees' rotation has never looked so vulnerable, Torre's getting old, they gotta give it up sometime, blah blah blah.  The fact is, paper doesn't mean shit.  The Yankees always have tricks up their sleeve that must be accounted for beyond what their roster looks like.  Until proven otherwise, the division is the Yankees' to lose.

The question is whether the Blue Jays beat out the Sox.  I still say no, but this situation has gotten worse and worse every year... the Blue Jays looming in the background, waiting to spoil all our American capitalist-moneybags fun.  I don't think Toronto's better than Boston or New York, but that doesn't mean they can't win more games via a statistical anomaly or two (say, a 17-2 record against Baltimore, or winning 80% of their games against the AL West) and sneak in.  The margin for error in the AL East is razor-thin, so this is far from a long-shot.  I'm not ready to bank on it, but I wouldn't be at all surprised.

I see two likely outcomes for the division: Yankees win, Sox second, and Sox win, Blue Jays second.  I cannot stress enough how unlikely that second scenario is... but should the Yankees indeed go down, they'll go down hard.  They won't simply lose out... they'll implode.  Like the Braves did last season.  Again, not likely (as if I really have to keep insisting)... just saying.

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