Thursday, March 22, 2007

I'm not as depressed as you might think today. Based on last season (which was the single greatest season in the history of modern relief pitching, at least by the standards that made the late not-so great Dick Radatz a regional media icon) and the title of this site, you might think that the local authorities had to talk me down from the ledge this afternoon. Jonathan Papelbon has returned to the bullpen for the Boston Red Sox, and the American League East is clinched with only 162 games remaining.

I bet those of you who read this space on a regular basis are expecting me to provide a cynical take on this move, to harsh the proverbial buzz of Red Sox Nation. I was fully prepared to do so, until I read this piece in the Washington Post. Jonathan Papelbon and Terry Francona were losing sleep over the turmoil in the bullpen. Can you imagine? The horror, the horror. I don't think I can summon up the energy to go about my daily activities until I find out with absolute certainty that the two of them are no longer running for the shelter of their mother's little helpers.

If you read the Boston Herald (and you do so at your own risk), you will find inspired analyses like this, praising Papelbon as a lights out closer and celebrating his new old role. On ESPN, there was some speculation that this could cause consternation in the Bronx. Somehow, I can't help but think that if Big Stein and Joe Torre are soiling their union suits, it has more to do with general issues of incontinence and less to do with the dazzling return of the greatest closer of all time after 102 career innings.

Looking at Papelbon's career stats, he had a very good season in terms of numbers last year. But he also blew six saves. At the end of the day, I am not too worried about his impressive WHIP or .OPS allowed. Maybe I'm just a casual observer and not a hard core baseball man. Or maybe I'm the world's oldest 27 year old. But I don't dig on stats as the measure of a baseball player. At the end of the day, all that matters is who wins it all. And as much as I hate the little hustling overachiever David Eckstein, I have a lot more regard for him than I do for Papelbon because he submitted a clutch performance in a World Series.

I am not the only person who isn't getting their hopes up for the return of Papelbon. Ken Rosenthal on FOX Sports does a nice job presenting all the questions swirling around this move. It is a fair point to speculate that the Red Sox are making a panic move here, because none of the stop gap solutions they imported this offseason showed any sign of panning out. After all, if they went into the season with Papelbon in the rotation and a gaping hole at the end of the game, Epstein would be running for his life from the fans and the media.

It can't be very encouraging for a Red Sox fan to consider all of the precautions the team plans to take with Papelbon. They're going to limit him to one inning appearances and keep him out of back to back games as much as they can. They aren't going to warm him up without putting him in the game. This is a long list designed to safeguard the arm health of a 26 year old entering his second major league season (the 17 appearances from 2005 don't count).

Hearing about these plans got me thinking about Mark Prior. He was another can't miss pitcher who burst onto the scene, but developed arm problems and for lack of a better term missed (at least to this point). Papelbon was supposed to be the future of the Red Sox rotation. Only 26 years old, with just over 100 innings pitched to this point and supposedly electric stuff, he was a bright beacon of hope to all the tools in the Nation.

His career is by no means over, as of today. But he's a 26 year old pitcher with a shoulder problem. So many things could go wrong. Either the joint isn't properly healed. Or he may develop a mental block, so he never unlocks his full potential. I wouldn't worry too much about the latter scenario, since it seems that his somewhat less than formidable intellect lacks the capacity to construct a mental block. But it's possible.

I think that this move to the pen and the talk about the precautions being taken is something of a smokescreen. After all, I'm not buying that closing is tougher on Pepelbon's shoulder than starting would be. As a closer he'll throw maybe 80 innings. As a starter, he'd throw somewhere in the vicinity of 200 innings. There are those who would place more emphasis on the stress of pitching the 80 innings while trying to hold a lead, but I'm not convinced. With proper warmup and the fact that Papelbon is not sufficiently intelligent to comprehend stress, it shouldn't be an issue.

Remember, Papelbon wasn't exactly dominant in his first spring training start. On the plus side, from the team's point of view, this calls a lot of attention away from the fact that every fifth game, the Boston Red Sox are going to be relying on Julian Tavarez to hold the fort. Between that and the fact that this team is relying on contributions from primetime players like Julio Lugo and JD Drew, I get the feeling that this is going to be a good year for Sedition in Red Sox Nation. Of course, I have been wrong before.

In other matters, I think Texas A and M got boned by the officials tonight. According to NCAA rules, as long as there is more than 4/10 of a second left on the clock, a team can catch and shoot off an inbounds pass. But one guy touching the ball on an inbounds pass 3 inches from the sideline managed to take 1.1 seconds off the clock. At that point, the officials might just as well have ended the game there, maybe buffed Coach Cal's no polish manicure. That would have been about as fair.

I must say that Memphis impressed me. I assumed that they were ripe to be upset even before the Sweet 16 when I saw the bracket. After all, who is left in Conference USA now, outside of a few branches of DeVry, ITT Tech and a University of Phoenix campus in suburban Kansas City (Kansas, not Missouri)? So, like almost every other observer, I laughed at Memphis. Plus, when has a Coach Cal team not underachieved in the tournament? I was amazed they were that close to Texas A and M down the stretch. I just wish the game could have ended without the controversy.

Also, I have to extend some sort of congratulations to Miami-Dade Community College. Their chess team recently upset Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and Northwestern. Up until today, I didn't even know that there were formal intercollegiate chess competitions. I wonder what the nerds on the Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth or Northwestern chess team will experience when they return to their nerderies after losing to a community college. I bet they have to hand over their pocket protectors in shame.

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