FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Since the time he was first eligible for salary arbitration, Jonathan Papelbon has seemingly been hurtling toward free agency, eager to test the market and determined to set a new salary standard for closers.
But now that free agency is just nine months away, Papelbon is almost disinterested at the prospect. Instead, he said Sunday, he's intent on focusing on the 2011 season, regardless of whether it's his last as a member of the Red Sox.
"It's not something that I'm going to really think about,'' Papelbon said. "The biggest thing I'm focused on right now is getting ready for the season and putting myself in a position to help this ballclub.
"For me really, I'm not really concerned about that right now. I know that all the pieces of the puzzle will fall into place after this year is done. Yeah, there's a possibility that I could stay. Yeah, there's a possibility that I could leave. But at the same time, I'm thinking about the possibility of winning a championship. I think that kind of throws everything out the door.
"I honestly am not going to think about free agency. I saw the acquisitions that Theo Epstein made. We're in a position where it's put-up, or shut-up. He's given us all the tools to go out and succeed. If I'm worried about free agency, or David Ortiz is worried about getting another deal or someone else is worrying about this, that or the other, we won't be the team we're supposed to be.
"Is it human nature to think about those things? Of course, it's human nature. But to think about them, and to sit there and dwell on them are two different things. Are you going think about them? Of course. Yeah, we're human. But to sit there and dwell on it and think, 'Is this going to happen? Is that going to happen?' I don't think that will be the case.''
From the outside anyway, Papelbon's offseason was an eventful one. There was the Red Sox' quiet but real interest in his mentor, Mariano Rivera. There was the signing of free agent Bobby Jenks, who might serve as his replacement in 2012, if not sooner. And there were trade discussions involving him with at least two teams.
But while the speculation and rumors were swirling, Papelbon did his best to ignore it all.
"For me, I just tried to really worry about what I needed to do to get ready for the season,'' shrugged Papelbon. "I think that's all I really could do. I don't think there was much else I could do but put myself in a position to go out and be the best I can be and be in the best shape I could be.
"It was pretty exciting. There was a lot going on. But for me, I kind of tucked away in Mississippi and tried to get ready for the season . . . The whole situation this offseason is part of the game. This is what happened, this is what goes on. You can't let feelings get in the way. I just try to stay focused on getting myself prepared to pitch and being the best I can be and come back this year and have a better season than I did last year and get back to proving to everyone what kind of closer that I am.''
Papelbon's 2010 didn't qualify as disastrous. He still managed to make 38 saves. But he led the American League in blown saves with eight and compiled an ERA of 3.90, the highest of his career.
It was enough to create speculation that Papelbon's best days as a ninth-inning force of nature were behind him, and in turn, led to the Sox seeking alternatives.
"I think every season, you definitely reflect on the kind of season you had,'' said Papelbon. "For me, obviously it was a down season. But I think you tend to take things from each season and try to learn from them. For me, I definitely took some things with me that I'm going to try to do the same, and some things that I'm going to try to do different this season.''
He kept the videotape study to a minimum over the winter, in part because he traced most of his difficulties in 2010 to some midseason mechanical flaws which were eventually corrected.
"I kind of lost my delivery toward the middle part of the season,'' he said. "But I'd say the last three weeks of the season, I got it right back. My feel at the end of the season was right there, so I stuck with that and tried to carry that into the offseason. So I really didn't look at much tape and try to change things.''
Perhaps even more encouraging is the fact that, already, Papelbon feels in sync with his body on the mound.
"From my first bullpen,'' he said, "the delivery is right where I was at the end of the season. I was throwing the ball really well at the end of the season, so I'm going to stick with that. For me, it's really rare to be set mechanically so early in the spring. If I can stay locked in this early, it will put me in a situation to stay healthy and pitch deep into the season.''
Meanwhile, Papelbon anchors a bullpen which has added veterans Dan Wheeler and Bobby Jenks to the existing pen which features Daniel Bard. The addition of Jenks will be a significant one, Papelbon believes.
"I think he's going to have a huge role on our team this year,'' Papelbon said, "and he's going to be a huge instrument for our success. I think he's going to have a big role on not our team's success, but my success. When you add a guy like Bobby and what he can bring to this team, I think it kind of speaks for itself.''