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Papelbon focused on 2011 as he mulls his future — with or without the Red Sox

02.13.11 at 4:30 pm ET

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Jonathan Papelbon did not hide from the reality of the 2010 campaign. From the time he assumed the role of closer in 2006 through 2009, he had been as automatic as any closer in the game.

But the 2010 season was different. Papelbon blew eight saves — more than any other reliever in the American League and more than in any other season of his career. His 3.90 ERA was more than double his career 1.84 mark prior to last year. He had career highs in homers (7) and walks (28) allowed.

“Obviously,” he acknowledged, “it was a down season.”

Even so, the 30-year-old said that the idea that he might not be back with the Sox for 2011 never crossed his mind this winter — even as the Sox talked to free agent Mariano Rivera, even as they signed Bobby Jenks to join the Boston bullpen, even as rumors persisted that the Sox were open to trading their longtime closer.

“I really honestly never thought that,” he said in a meeting with the media on Sunday morning. “There was never a point this offseason where I didn’€™t think I’€™d be here.”

That may change going forward. He recognizes that this may (or may not) be his last spring training with the Sox, depending on what happens to him when he reaches free agency following the year. But even as several questions were focused on that front, Papelbon suggested that the issue of his employer in 2012 is a matter for another time.

Papelbon said that his focus was and is on the fate of the 2011 Sox (a team he described as “championship caliber”), and that he did not approach this season any differently just because free agency looms on the other side of it. Even so, the closer said that he understood why there is a prevailing assumption among Sox followers that — with both Jenks (signed through 2012) and Daniel Bard (under team control through 2015) on the Sox roster — Papelbon is entering his final season with the Sox.

“[The presence of Bard and Jenks] is part of why everybody is assuming that I’€™m not going to be here. I understand that. like I said, that’€™s to be seen in the future. That will all come one day after the season is over. That will unfold and we’€™ll see what happens,” said Papelbon. “That’€™s an assumption [that he will leave]. For me, I just kind of leave it at that. I don’€™t really sit there and think every day or every time I’€™m going to go out there and play, oh, this could be my last time in a Red Sox uniform or this could be my last time on the Red Sox. Whatever. Honestly, I’€™m not going to think about that. … I don’€™t have a magic crystal 8-ball to give you that answer [about where he will be playing next year]. If I did, I probably wouldn’€™t be sitting here.’€

What Papelbon did make clear is that he still wants to be viewed as one of the best in the game, both during the season and when he reaches free agency following it. After his media session, the closer told WEEI.com that he hopes to reach free agency as the premier closer on the market, just as Rafael Soriano did en route to a three-year, $35 million deal with the Yankees.

“That’s the position I want to be in,” Papelbon said regarding Soriano’s positioning heading into the free agent market following the 2010 season. “When the season is all said and done this year, I want to be the No. 1 guy coming out, no question.”

The Soriano deal, along with Rivera’s two-year, $30 million contract, slowed down a downward trend for closers in terms of salaries. Papelbon, who avoided arbitration by inking a one-year, $12 million in Jan., could be fighting for free agent dollars with closers Heath Bell, Jonathan Broxton, Joe Nathan (club option for $12.5 million), Brad Lidge (club option for $12.5 million), Francisco Rodriguez and even Soriano, who has an opt-out clause after each of his first two seasons with New York.

“I don’t know all the logistics of his deal, but it definitely has opened doors for a lot other people in this game,” said Papelbon of Soriano. “I think it has opened a lot of things in the game, and that’s a good thing for people to do.

“I’m excited. [Soriano] was one of the best in the game last year and people should realize that. If you’re one of the best, you should be [paid] like one of the best.”

Papelbon said that his goal heading into ’11 is to put all doubts about his status as one of the game’s closers to rest.

“I think that’s my mindset this year,” he said. “I understand there are a lot of doubters out there, and that’s just natural, but I use that for fuel. That’s just me. That’s who I am.”

Read More: bobby jenks, closer market, Daniel Bard, Jonathan Papelbon
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