Jonathan Papelbon calls a spade a spade, but what if it’s not?

Jonathan Papelbon wants what he’s got coming. The Red Sox closer told ESPN Boston‘s Gordon Edes:

I’m not afraid to show that, hey, I want to be with the Red Sox [in a multiyear deal]. I’d love to have that sense of security of being with a team and knowing, ‘Hey, they want me, and I want them, let’s have a happy marriage.’

But what do I have to give up to be in that marriage? Understand, I’m in the prime of my career. Why would I give up something? I’d give up something if it’s fair to both sides, but I want to do things for my fellow closers, just like Mo paved the way for me. I want every closer out there, man, to get every penny they deserve.’

I love the honesty here, but are Papelbon’s expectations realistic?

By conventional standards, he had an excellent 2009, posting a 1.85 ERA and blowing just three save opportunities in 41 chances. A closer look, though, reveals that he really struggled, as his K/BB dropped from 9.63 in 2008 to 3.17 in 2009. That crazy variance–how often does that happen with a full-season guy?–led to a FIP increase of over 50 percent. First things first, I’d suggest that both seasons are outliers to a degree. Nothing in Papelbon’s past indicates the 9.63 K/BB figure was going to be sustainable. Similarly, though, I don’t see him staying down in the low 3s. Neither do the Bill James, CHONE, or Fan projections on Fangraphs. Each of those forecasts a K/BB in the low 4s, well below Papelbon’s 2006-08 marks but certainly better than last season’s 3.17.

Stuff-wise, a quick glance says that Papelbon wasn’t a great deal more hittable last year than in seasons past. Strikeout and home run figures fell in line with career norms, and velocity didn’t suffer a precipitous drop–just 0.6 miles per hour slower on his average fastball. That’s not totally insignificant, but he was throwing harder in 2009 than in his very-successful 2006 and 2007 campaigns. So what changed?

Well, that fastball was nearly a run worse per 100 pitches in 2009 than it was in 2008, and not even half as potent last year as in 2006 and 2007. That his fastball in the amazing 2008 season wasn’t as good as in prior years seems strange. Less effective fastball, better overall results. It comes down to usage and control. Paps used his heater over 8% more in 2008 and 2009 than in the two preceding years. This worked in 2008 because he walked no one and surrendered his typically-few home runs. In 2009, though, a further decrease in splitters and a slight increase in sliders factored into that ballooning walk rate. Something was broken, but the vagaries of limited innings didn’t outwardly reveal this concerning trend.

It’s highly unlikely that Papelbon will return to his 2008 form even with a reversion to that year’s approach, and it seems that getting back to 2006 and 2007 levels presents an uphill battle of its own. So, coming off a season where the shiny-object numbers were brilliant despite some red flags in the underlying figures, wouldn’t this be the perfect time for Papelbon and his agents to seek a big payday?

From some organizations, yes. But I’d be shocked if the Red Sox, for all their savvy, see things Papelbon’s way. Indeed, he might be just one more data point in the “Don’t Pay Closers, Dummy!” guide to basic general managing, and the club knows that. While there’s no reason to think Papelbon won’t be excellent in 2010 and very good beyond, it would be foolish to believe he hasn’t peaked. And it would be even more foolish to pay him as if his best days were ahead of him. The Red Sox are not where they are because they make foolish decisions.

Unlike most teams, Boston can fully justify paying Papelbon at the $10 million level, which is where the two sides might settle prior to arbitration. That would value him in between his 2008 and 2009 production figures, $13.5 million and $8.8 million, respectively. While getting equal value on a reliever contract is an inefficient use of resources, the Red Sox can absorb it without much difficulty. Flexibility, though, has its own value. Committing eight figures each year for seasons beyond his team-controlled years doesn’t make sense. Not for a classically-volatile reliever on the wrong side of his peak years.

The Boston Red Sox and Jonathan Papelbon probably have very different visions of a “perfect marriage” at this point. Papelbon wants a long-term deal advancing the Joe Nathan (4/$47) and Mariano Rivera (3/$45) market, which was established in different economic times. Given that the Red Sox hold all the cards, don’t expect Papelbon to get what he wants. He has two choices here: sign long-term with a team that will properly value his performance, or hit the market after the 2011 season and hope enough general managers fascinated by shiny objects still have their jobs.

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