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June 22. 2013 8:12PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Papelbon should be a Sox priority

His entrance music remains on cue, as heir apparent Andrew Bailey has used the familiarly frenetic ditty to announce his own ninth-inning arrivals since April. And his longtime job essentially remains just as vacant as the day he left for Philadelphia.

So the time has come to make literal the lyrics of the Dropkick Murphys.

It's come time to send Jonathan Papelbon shipping up to Boston.

It would come at a cost, of course, with the Phillies still on the fringe of contention in the National League and not yet halfway through the significant commitment they made to the reliever as a free agent.

But given all that's happened since Papelbon's last pitch on behalf of Boston made official the worst September collapse in baseball history, given what's going on with Bailey at this point, and given the position the club has put itself in this season, it's a cost the Sox should pay - provided it's not exorbitantly high.

If all - or anything - had gone according to plan at the back end of the bullpen, Ben Cherington wouldn't be in a position where he'd have to reconsider a reunion with the franchise's all-time saves leader. He made an aggressive attempt to settle his closer situation between the 2011-12 seasons, trading with the Athletics for Bailey, a two-time All-Star.

After an injury-plagued first season in Boston there were doubts whether Bailey was the solution, though. So the general manager from Meriden, N.H., traded for another two-time All-Star, and acquired Joel Hanrahan from the Pirates.

To start the season, and even by early May, it looked as though the Sox had two closers capable of manning the role - but Hanrahan is done for the year with a torn tendon in his arm, and while Bailey remains active there are indications that something isn't right with him, too.

Bailey spent time on the disabled list last month with a biceps strain, and since then he hasn't looked like the same pitcher. His velocity is down. His command is worse. And accordingly he seems to have lost some of the confidence that's a prerequisite to finishing games. If there are physical issues - and Bailey has been prone to those over his career - a return to reliability won't be as easy as moving him to the middle innings and letting him work out his issues.

Likewise, finding someone to handle the ninth inning may not be as easy as simply sliding Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa or Andrew Miller back an inning or two. That's why the Sox should be looking elsewhere for help.

And why they should look specifically to Papelbon.

As Bailey and Hanrahan have begun to prove, closing in Boston is different than closing in other places. As countless examples across baseball have proven over time, results tend to be fickle for all but the elite relievers. And as rosters around the game can attest, durability is a commodity as valuable as dependability.

But Papelbon presents a player in which the Sox could be comfortable according to all of those criteria. He is obviously capable of handling the spotlight that comes with being the Red Sox closer. Now in his ninth year, he has never been on the disabled list. And he continues to dominate at the end of games.

He converted his first 13 save opportunities this season, and is now 14 of 16 overall. His earned run average was 1.95 entering Saturday, and he'd yielded just .795 walks and hits per inning pitched - on pace for his fewest since 2007. He hadn't allowed more than one run since his first outing of the season.

The only reasons for pause might be a declining strikeout rate (8.5 per nine innings is a career-low) that's probably a product of diminishing velocity (his typical fastball has lost 2.2 mph since leaving Boston), but he's throwing 36 percent fewer fastballs than he did in 2011, which speaks to his growth as a pitcher. And he's still plenty effective, so those numbers shouldn't be dealbreakers.

Neither should his deal itself, which is what landed the 32-year-old in Philly to begin with. At this point, Papelbon is owed $13 million for each of the next two seasons, and another $13 million in 2016 if he finishes 55 games the year prior, or a total of 100 between 2014-15.

That's basically the same money the Sox pledged to Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster and (initially) Mike Napoli last winter. So it's clearly not a prohibitive number. Especially given that Papelbon would probably offer a bigger impact than any of those three.

The heavier price would be paid in terms of prospects, and the Phillies won't likely let Papelbon go cheaply - if at all. But if he is made available, and Cherington can find a package that balances his short- and long-term interests, Papelbon should become a priority.

With Toronto's win Friday, every AL East teams were at least .500, and all five were within seven games of each other. The Sox can ill-afford to give games away like they did Thursday, and it's not clear that Bailey is physically capable of getting back on track quickly enough, or that the others can fill the role consistently. They need help. And they need it soon.

So cue the music.
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Another area some would like to see the Red Sox target in a trade is the outfield - though after Victorino went 4-for-5 Friday, Boston boasted three of the AL's top 10 outfielders in on-base percentage (190 plate-appearance minimum), with he and Jacoby Ellsbury both at .351, and Daniel Nava ranked second at .375. Add Mike Carp (.379 OBP in 116 PAs) and Jonny Gomes (.909 OBP plus slugging over the past two weeks) to the mix, with Jackie Bradley Jr. waiting at Pawtucket, and that probably isn't an area of need.

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The Blue Jays follow the Rockies into Boston this week, and Toronto arrives having resuscitated its season. Nine straight wins brought the Jays to Saturday at 36-36, and since May 5 they'd been the best team in the AL at 25-15. That's 2.5 games better than the Red Sox.

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Stat of the week: Since joining the Sox, Bailey has a 6.85 ERA and 1.97 WHIP in save situations. In other situations, his ERA is 2.93 and his WHIP is 0.91.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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