The departure of Jonathan Papelbon means a number of things: a more flexible Red Sox payroll, a bullpen in need of some serious work, and perhaps above all else, the end of an era.
For six years, Jonathan Papelbon has been a fixture in the ninth inning of close games. Often dominant, occasionally frustrating, always uniquely Papelbon, the flamethrowing right-hander established himself as the most prolific closer in team history in his seven seasons (six full) with the team. His 217 saves eclipsed the previous record (held by Bob Stanley) by more than 50%.
And yet, it's hard to really place his legacy.
Papelbon was, after all, never the consummate Red Sox. Aside from the honeymoon period with a World Series clinching save and river dancing in the ensuing parade, Papelbon has often been held at arm's length by Sox fans. He was always a rock star when he entered the games, but otherwise never seemed to reach the same level of adoration as the other players who performed at the top of their positions.
The reason is likely the simplye fact that Papelbon was always in it for the money, and unabashedly so. There were never any promises to stay with the team, or even proclamations of loyalty beyond what he owed to himself to improve his chances in free agency. At times there was even talk of changing his delivery to preserve his arm for future buyers.
But that's alright. Papelbon is not a "traitor," he is a mercenary, and one who did fine work for the Red Sox aside from 2010. While that won't make a man beloved, it should make him appreciated, and it's impossible not to appreciate Papelbon at his unhittable best. The Sox have absolutely lost a key piece of the puzzle. The question that will be asked over the next few weeks, however, is whether or not they were right to allow it to happen.
For what it's worth, as much as Papelbon is an exceptional reliever, he is by no means irreplaceable. The Sox ultimately need to find just 64 innings of a 2.96 ERA, and quite frankly investing what the Phillies did in the most notoriously fickle and fragile of positions is a bit ridiculous. At $12.5 million per year Papelbon will almost certainly emerge as the highest paid closer of the current free agent crop, and with a vesting option for a fifth year being very easily obtainable, it's hard to imagine that the Phillies and their fans will really be looking at this move positively come 2016.
For now, the Sox will have to move on. Whether that means Madson-likely to cost less than the 4-year, $44 million that the Philadelphia CEO apparently rejected-or someone else remains to be seen. Whoever ends up pitching the ninth in 2012, however, it will not be the same as having Papelbon on the mound, for better or for worse.