CLEARWATER, Fla. - It was a bold prediction on the final day of an unpleasant season.
"If we're not the top bullpen in Major League Baseball [next season], we'll definitely be the top in the National League," Jonathan Papelbon said after the Phillies finished 2012 with a lackluster loss to Washington at Nationals Park.
Nearly 20 weeks later, the Phillies closer was asked to explain his comment before Sunday's wind-chilled workout at the Carpenter Complex.
"The only reason I said that is because I see a very eerily similar bullpen to the one I was in during the 2006 season," Papelbon said. "Then we came out of that and into 2007 and went on to win the World Series. It was almost identical bullpens except for the fact that I'm a little bit older now. Overall, it was very, very similar."
You can make a case for the similarities between the 2006 Boston Red Sox bullpen and the 2012 Phillies bullpen. The Phillies finished last season with a 3.94 ERA in relief situations, which ranked 21st in baseball and 10th in the National League. Boston's bullpen checked out of 2006 with a 4.51 ERA, also 21st in baseball, and ninth in the American League.
The eighth inning was a disaster for the Phillies last season - their 4.89 ERA was the second worst in baseball - and a weak point for the Red Sox in 2006.
It's impossible this early to compare the 2007 Boston bullpen, which had the third-best ERA in the American League and fourth-best in baseball, to the 2013 Phillies bullpen.
There is, however, this similarity: Both teams signed veteran free agents in the offseason to handle the setup role. Boston got brilliant work from Japanese import Hideki Okajima. The Phillies hope for the same from Mike Adams.
"The learning experiences that happened to the [Red Sox] bullpen in 2006 and the way they happened for us last year were very similar," Papelbon said. "The things that I saw at the end of the year last year and the way the year ended in '06, it makes me think about what I'm going to see in the future here."
The addition of Adams and the way the Phillies' bullpen finished last season with a large contingent of twentysomethings has the entire organization encouraged about what could happen in 2013. The bullpen ERA through July last season was 4.50. After July, it was 3.01.
"Hopefully, the experience those young guys got and adding some veterans is going to benefit those guys greatly," pitching coach Rich Dubee said.
Dubee described Papelbon's first season as the Phillies' closer as solid.
"If there was any negative at all, he just didn't pitch well in those tie games," Dubee said. "But close situations, I think he was one of the best in the league, if not all of baseball. He had a tremendous year for us."
Papelbon's word choice to describe his first season was quite a bit different.
"Disappointment," he said. "Total failure. I made the all-star team, and it was still a total failure. I didn't come here to play baseball the way we played last year or to see baseball the way we played last year. I didn't come here to go .500."
Like so many other people, Papelbon said he could see disaster ahead even before the Phillies left Clearwater for the start of the 2012 season. With Ryan Howard and Chase Utley unable to reach the starting line, he said, the Phillies panicked.
"I think the panic started in the spring," he said. "It started from everywhere. Not just the team. I think at times last year the front office panicked. I think the coaches panicked. I think our players and team panicked. This team had never been through that kind of adversity before, where you lose your best two hitters.
"Any team, any front office, any manager would panic. You take [Dustin] Pedroia and [David] Ortiz out of the Red Sox lineup - done. You take [Robinson] Cano and [Mark] Teixeira out of the Yankees lineup - done. You take [Jayson] Werth and [Ryan] Zimmerman out of the Nationals lineup - done. It's that simple."
Papelbon believes that the Phillies' strong finish last season meant something. He believes that if it carries into spring training, it will translate into a great start and a special season. And he's sure the bullpen will play a huge role in the success.
Contact Bob Brookover at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @brookob.