"I just envision myself as a starter because of my body frame, my body type, my mentality," said Papelbon. "I've accepted that [likelihood of starting] and I'm going to take my goals, my plan in the offseason, as if I'm going to be a starter. I think, for me, it was a big eye-opener this year with our starting pitching, that you have to have starting pitching in order to get to your closer. If you don't have starting pitching, you ain't getting to your closer."
Because he started all through the Minor Leagues and made three turns in the Boston rotation in 2005, this would not be a significant adjustment for Papelbon.
"I've started here; I've done it before," Papelbon said. "It's not going to be anything new to me. I'm going to take it on just like I did the closer's role this year. For me, I think I can definitely go out and start; I've done it before. There's no hesitation in my mind whatsoever of me going out and starting, just like there was no question or hesitation of me starting out the year as a closer."
Of course, Papelbon's brilliant stint as the closer was halted on Sept. 1, when he exited the mound in the ninth inning with a stinging pain in his right shoulder. He learned a couple of days later that he had a transient subluxation, which meant that he had a slippage -- but no tear -- in his shoulder joint.
Papelbon emphasized that if the Red Sox still had realistic hopes of playing in October, he'd be healthy enough to pitch. But because they aren't, it makes a lot more sense to take the conservative approach.
"I'm probably done," Papelbon said. "I hate to say it, but it's just ... I think it's smart for me. Especially what happened with [Francisco] Liriano [of the Twins], being a young pitcher as well, I think the guys here kind of took notice of that, especially just because of the fact that we're not in it. Believe me when I say this -- if we were in this thing, I'd be pitching; there's no doubt about it. In my mind, and in my trainer's mind, I'm healthy enough. And I feel it in my heart, and he feels it in his heart, that I'm healthy enough to pitch."
When Spring Training began, Papelbon was one of seven starters Boston had in camp. He was moved to the bullpen in late March and, in Game 2 of the regular season, became a closer for the first time since his days at Mississippi State. Papelbon flourished in the role, converting his first 20 save opportunities and making the American League All-Star team.
With a 4-2 record, a 0.92 ERA and 35 saves, Papelbon remains a strong candidate for the American League Rookie of the Year Award despite missing the final month of the season.
"I just envision myself as a starter because of my body frame, my body type, my mentality."
-- Jonathan Papelbon
Red Sox manager Terry Francona stressed that a definitive decision had not been made in regard to what Papelbon will do next year, but added there was no reason to make such an announcement so far in advance of 2007. However, the manager said that the decision would come down to whatever is best for Papelbon' well-being.
Francona acknowledged it might be easier to manage Papelbon as a starter because there won't be as much of a temptation to overuse him.
"You get into a situation where, as a reliever, you always want more," said Francona. "Because you need to win more. He's had this episode a couple of times. He kind of felt weak in Chicago [around the All-Star break], and then this happened. We need to try to stay away from that. If we put him on such a strict program [as a closer] where we knew his health would never be in jeopardy, I don't know if we could win. That's what you're fighting."
Before Papelbon was injured, it almost seemed like a safe assumption that he'd close again next year. But his malady forced the Red Sox and Papelbon to reexamine what is in the best interest of his precious right arm.
"[We need to] just get him healthy, and we'll sit down and talk to him and get all the information and do what we think makes the most sense," said Francona. "I know we've already spent some time and we will certainly spend more time. I just don't think that, with two weeks left in the season, it is the time to make him a starter or a reliever.
"It's an interesting subject and it's something we certainly have spent time and will continue to. Like I said, I've already talked to Pap. I don't think there has to be an announcement in October. We'll get to it."
Interestingly, Papelbon said that the Red Sox had already contacted his representatives regarding their tentative plans for the pitcher.
"They talked to my agent and my agent agrees with them," Papelbon said. "We've talked to plenty of doctors. That's the approach we're going to take right now. Like I said, something can very possibly easily change where we don't really get any help in the bullpen and I could go back. But right now the whole mind-set is that I'm probably going to go back to the rotation."
The Red Sox could go into 2007 with a rotation of Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Papelbon, Tim Wakefield and Matt Clement, all of whom are under the contractual control of the club.