Sox searching for Papelbon's successor
Slew of candidates will campaign in Florida to win closer's job
BOSTON -- There won't be an actual vacancy sign hanging over the Spring Training complex when pitchers and catchers report for the Red Sox on Feb. 16, but the opening is very real and won't be far from anyone's mind.
If a player or two forgets for a moment that the Red Sox don't have a designated closer yet, there will be a helpful media member or two or 10 there to remind him.
The closer competition figures to be the most pressing issue in camp for manager Terry Francona and his staff.
Gentlemen, start your side sessions. There is a job to be won.
And rest assured, the Red Sox won't be going back in time to 2003 and bring back the closer-by-committee concept.
"We don't have one person designated as the closer yet, but we certainly will by the time the season breaks," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "Tito [Francona] and [pitching coach] John Farrell have been spending a lot of time on the phone going over these guys and what ways to get the best out of everybody. We're pretty confident there will be multiple candidates who step up and throw the ball really well, and put themselves in the mix to pitch effectively for us in the closer's role."
There will be no small list of candidates. Among those in the mix will be Joel Pineiro, Julian Tavarez, Brendan Donnelly, Mike Timlin and Craig Hansen. Manny Delcarmen and Devern Hansack can at least be viewed as long-shot candidates. Only Timlin has extensive closing experience of all the contenders, and the Red Sox would much prefer to have him working the seventh and eighth innings.
Until one man is actually anointed as the closer, there is bound to be at least a little external obsession on the man who did the job so well in 2006. For it isn't as if Jonathan Papelbon has gone anywhere. He will be in camp, just in his new -- and old -- role as a starting pitcher.
In a spring in which the Red Sox look deep in the starting rotation, is there any chance Papelbon could wind up performing "last call" again?
"No, we haven't talked about that," said Papelbon. "Nothing along those lines has been discussed. In my opinion, it's pretty much an open job this spring. Like I was saying earlier, that's the one thing about Spring Training, you go in there and there's competition and it's fun competition. That's what makes your team better."
The reason the Red Sox have opted to switch courses at closer is because of the arm problems Papelbon had last September. At that time, doctors determined it would be in the best interests over the long term for Papelbon's right shoulder to pitch every fifth day.
Still, Papelbon was asked recently if he'd be stunned if he wound up closing again.
If there is a slight favorite, it's probably Pineiro, the one-time promising starter, who was non-tendered by the Mariners and signed by the Red Sox.
"Where [Pineiro] pitches in the bullpen, where he pitches in a game ... that will be Terry's decision," said assistant general manager Jed Hoyer. "We think we signed a very good pitcher, one that will make a very good transition."
The candidate who looks most like a closer when it comes to physique is Donnelly, the righty acquired from the Angels. Donnelly is big, strong and throws hard.
"I think Donnelly can be very interesting piece of the puzzle in our bullpen," Epstein said. "He's someone who prefers to pitch in important situations, prefers to pitch later in the game. He always wants the ball. He's got a very tough, competitive makeup, which we think will be a very good fit for our situation."
Tavarez definitely has the competitive makeup to be a closer. But would he be able to produce consistent results? Tavarez was inconsistent as a setup man in '06, but the veteran righty flourished after moving into the more high-profile starting role in September.
Could that confidence carry over into this spring and make him an effective closer for the Red Sox? It is, at least, an outside possibility, considering that Tavarez converted 11 out of 14 save chances in his brief run as the Pirates closer in 2003.
The man who has often been dubbed the closer of the future for the Red Sox is Hansen. Don't look for the hard thrower out of St. John's University to win the job out of camp, but he could emerge as the main man by the All-Star break if he makes enough progress.
"They told me to be ready to compete, and that is the philosophy I will take with me into Spring Training," Hansen said. "I've been looking to get into a major spot where the team could count on me whether it would be closing, starting, setup, middle relief, long relief -- it doesn't matter."
Make no mistake about it, Farrell, Francona and bullpen coach Gary Tuck are going to have a busy Spring Training narrowing down the playing field for the closer's role.
"There's an opportunity," said Farrell. "There's a quality list of candidates to land that job. I'm sure at this time a year ago, nobody thought that Jonathan Papelbon was going to be that guy.
"I think the one thing that we have is viable candidates internally to nail down the closer's position and have the rest of the bullpen fall in line, which ideally gives everyone some understanding of their role and confidence when they walk in the clubhouse every day."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.