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What is Jonathan Papelbon Worth in the 2012 Free Agent Market?

Earlier this season, it seemed fairly clear that Jonathan Papelbon was no longer an elite closer.

Many waited for Papelbon to take a significant step forward in an effort to prove that his disastrous 2010 season was a fluke. Others wondered if the once-dominant closer would ever take such a step.

In the middle of June, there was certainly a case to be made that the Sox should let Papelbon walk after the season to sign elsewhere. His ERA was 4.50 and he had allowed eight runs in his previous seven outings.

Roughly two months later, Papelbon is pitching like one of baseball’s elite relievers once again, and it’s coinciding with the first contract year of his Major League career.

The right-hander is 4-0 with a 3.02 ERA after converting his 23rd consecutive save on Tuesday night in a win over the Rays. He is now an impressive 28-for-29 in save opportunities this season.

Papelbon hasn’t allowed an earned run since July 16th in a game against the same Tampa Bay team, and to say that he’s been dominant during this recent stretch would be a major understatement.

The righty has thrown 13 straight scoreless innings since that outing, allowing just three hits while walking none and striking out 13. For the last month, he’s been arguably the best relief pitcher in the Majors.

Papelbon is headed for free agency at the conclusion of the season, and the lucrative long-term contract that once seemed like a pipedream is becoming far more probable for the 30-year-old.

He has rebounded from a year in which he blew more saves (8) than almost every reliever in baseball to post the second best success rate in the American League (behind only Jose Valverde of the Tigers).

The Mets gave Francisco Rodriguez a three-year deal worth $37 million prior to the 2009 season, and it’s hard to imagine that Papelbon will receive that kind of money.

New York regretted the signing to the point that it was willing to eat a portion of the deal to trade him to Milwaukee prior to the trade deadline. There were clearly character issues involved with Rodriguez’s situation, but the lesson was clear.

According to Alex Speier of WEEI.com, there have only been “12 multi-year deals of at least $9 million a year signed by closers. Three of the pitchers to sign those contracts have been subjected to Tommy John surgery, and a fourth also underwent a major procedure that left him unable to pitch for most of the two years of his deal.”

ESPN.com’s Rob Neyer notes that three of those contracts went to the same player (Mariano Rivera), and only four were given to players who were healthy and effective for the life of their respective deals.

Teams clearly understand the significant risk in handing out a long-term contract to a closer, and the Red Sox are no exception. The organization also understands that the typical shelf life of a Major League closer doesn’t typically last more than three years.

Papelbon has already bucked that trend, posting elite relief seasons from 2006 to 2009. During that span, his ERA was never higher than 2.34, his WHIP never eclipsed 1.15, and opposing batters never hit better than .226 against him for an entire year.

If there were a handful of closers in baseball who deserved a three year deal similar to that of Rodriguez, Papelbon would be on the list. The question is whether or not he’ll get that offer, and history suggests that such a decision could be costly for the team that makes it.

Unlike teammates like Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz, Papelbon elected to roll the dice and chose not to sign long-term with Boston before he was eligible for free agency.

He sacrificed financial security for a shot at one big pay day as he hit 30. This winter, the righty will find out if that was a mistake.

Whether or not the Red Sox or another club is willing to shell out long-term (3+ years) money to Papelbon is anyone’s guess. But for now, the organization has the hottest reliever in baseball pitching for a contract.

Many feel that there is no such thing as a bad one-year contract, and the Sox are currently subscribing to that belief. When the 2011 season ends, a three-year contract will be the starting point in Papelbon’s negotiations.

Alastair Ingram is the featured Boston Red Sox columnist for RantSports.com. For daily updates, follow him on Twitter at @AlastairIngram, follow the blog at @FenwayReport, and join the fan page on Facebook.