Schilling reported on his blog today that Papelbon will in fact be the closer, though I saw it first on Boston Sports Media Watch (okay, if you want to put a really fine point on it I saw it first mentioned on this Soxaholix comments thread, but that's not exactly an official source), which added, "[it] might be a first. A player reporting the news about another player and his team on his own website."
One of the important points to note here is just how much smarter, and stronger he is, than he was last year.
Since he was hurt last year, like any smart athlete, he has taken the time to get educated on exactly how his shoulder works, and how best to address it and take care of it. The great part about that is that in my experience it’s always taken a major surgery to get young pitchers with unhealthy shoulders to see the light, and that’s not the case here.
That to me is the most important aspect or the major turning point in any young players career. When you get hurt that first time, and you get educated about your arm, things change dramatically if you are someone that has an inner desire to be great, which he does. You get an education that not only allows you to get healthy, but get stronger.
Far be it from me to second-guess the likes of Schilling when it comes to pitching decisions, and I guess I have to say that I've come around a bit since having some angst earlier this year about the consideration people were giving to Papelbon as the closer.
Because basically, I'm selfish. I am extremely, extremely selfish. And I know that while Papelbon's career could be dampened next year if he closes this year, the thought of the rotation we have with him closing behind it makes me kind of grin like an idiot. Even if I know it's not necessarily the right thing for him long term, and a commenter over at Schill's brings up a very good point: "I just don’t like the idea of a young horse pitching 80 innings, maybe 30 of them critical… instead of eating over 200 and competiting for a Cy Young."
But the greedy fan in me thinks, How many years are we going to still have Schilling and Wake, along with a young Beckett and a brand new Matsuzaka in the rotation? And as I plodded through debates and conversations this spring over Donnelly vs. Piniero, Tavarez vs. Timlin, the greedy fan in me kind of knew that none of the above were going to cut the mustard as a closer. And so far, the only thing keeping me from clearly envisioning the Sox on top in October, the one missing ingredient, was the lack of a pitcher in the role of Keith Foulke going into this season.
I still have my reservations because I still hate what happened to Foulkie after '04, and it's a very real possibility that could be Jonathan's future if we find ourselves in as wild a postseason as we had that year. Jonathan's younger, but Foulke was a veteran closer with vastly more experience preparing physically for the role and closing in the postseason. If 2004 destroyed him, what might a similar run in 2007 do to Papelbon?
But if we want to reach that Promised Land again, now that some big chips are falling in our rotation, we're not going to do it without a kickass closer. And there is no closer currently available that fits that description but Jonathan.
I can get behind the idea that it's really not because nobody else is available--that would be the case if we were sticking with Timlin and co. If he can even half match his performance last year, Papelbon is clearly a better closer than the rest of the bullpen put together.
We all know what happened in 2003 and 2004. We all know how important pitching is, and within that, how important a role the closer has--both positive and negative--in a push for the playoffs. We've got the pair of aces again this year (arguably even three), but we need that last piece of the puzzle. You know it and I know it.
The question is whether or not it's worth the risk of betting the bank against Papelbon's health for a year that still might not go our way. My more cautious side still says no. But my dad has a saying: "No balls, no blue chips." And I have to admit, the greedy fan in me wants to take that gamble.
P.S. Alex Belth writes to say: "Hey good day for you guys...Paplebon is the closer again...Drat." I guess that's a vote in favor. Also, check out Alex's Q & A with Schilling over at SI.com.