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'Fan favorite' Papelbon seems to soften over leaving Phillies'

Closer Jonathan Papelbon says he's 'not sold' on Phillies' rebuilding process, expresses some optimism about 2015 season.

Jonathan Papelbon says he still is optimistic that the Phillies can contend in 2015. (David Swanson/Staff Photographer)
Jonathan Papelbon says he still is optimistic that the Phillies can contend in 2015. (David Swanson/Staff Photographer)Read moreDAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

CLEARWATER, Fla. - After playing catch and running through pitcher's fielding practice on the second day of camp yesterday, Jonathan Papelbon changed into his street clothes and asked a media relations representative a question.

"Can I wear this?" the veteran closer said, pulling a T-shirt out from his locker.

When Papelbon arrived in the cafeteria-slash-news conference room at Bright House Field a few minutes later, when he talked to reporters for the first time in 2015, the closer wore his trademark smirk. And a shirt emblazoned with the words, "Fan Favorite," that he quickly hid by zipping up his hoodie.

Papelbon, of course, is only 5 months removed from walking off the mound at Citizens Bank Park to a chorus of boos following a blown save. On the way back to the dugout, he made an "equipment adjustment" as fans watched; a seven-game suspension from Major League Baseball followed.

Some fan favorite, eh?

"I think my relationship speaks for itself," Papelbon said when asked about Phillies fans. "If you want a guy that goes out there and competes and grinds it out every day and is happy to show up for work and happy to be in the clubhouse and be a positive influence, that's what you're going to get from me."

Aside from his choice in wardrobe, a sophomoric joke out of the Cliff Lee Magic 8 Ball Playbook, Papelbon played it politically correct.

He will be happy if he's in Philly for the duration of the season, or if he's traded to a contender tomorrow, too. He thinks the Phillies can contend in 2015. He's "not so sold on this entire rebuilding" project the front office made public in October.

Before last year's trade deadline, Papelbon said general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. told him the team would continue to be committed to fielding a contender into 2015. Papelbon did not view this winter as a change of course.

"[Amaro] got rid of Marlon Byrd and Jimmy Rollins," Papelbon said. "I don't think he dumped everyone off. I don't think that it's necessary to say there's been a complete dump-off of everybody."

But unless you spent the offseason living under a rock - Papelbon did not, he spent one weekend playing cheerleader on ESPN for his Mississippi State football team - you're aware the Phillies were trying to "dump" other veterans, including lefthander Cole Hamels, first baseman Ryan Howard, and the volatile and vocal closer, too.

"Once I hear something from my agents, that's when I get involved," Papelbon said. "I never heard anything from them . . . If Philadelphia still wants me and they want me to be a piece of this puzzle and continue to be a leader in this bullpen, I love my chances of staying here and competing. But if Toronto wants me, if Milwaukee wants me, whoever wants me, they're going to get someone who knows how to compete and go play ball and lay it on the line. That's basically what it boils down to for me."

Papelbon, 34, was rumored to be going to Milwaukee a month ago, but the Phillies and Brewers apparently cannot agree on a deal.

The Brewers are one of the 17 teams for which Papelbon can use his no-trade clause to veto a deal. But Papelbon is unlikely to block a trade to a contender if he's approached.

As for asking one of those teams on his no-trade list to pick up his $13 million option for the 2016 season, Papelbon played coy.

"I'll cross that bridge when I get there," Papelbon said. "I think it depends on where I'm going, what the situation is with that other ballclub, what my situation is here. The whole equation comes into play."

In November 2011, Papelbon signed a 4-year, $50 million deal as a free agent with the Phillies. It was and remains the richest contract for a relief pitcher in baseball history.

But after winning a World Series in Boston, while also making regular trips to the playoffs and never playing on a team with a losing record, he hasn't played on a team that finished a season with a winning record in Philadelphia.

Regrets, Papelbon doesn't have even a few.

"I don't have any regrets at all coming here," he said. "I get to play in an intense environment every day. I was the highest-paid closer in baseball [when I signed]. Why would I regret any of that?"

Papelbon's careful words were in sharp contrast to the ones he spoke in front of his locker at Miller Park in Milwaukee in early July. On that night, he all but came out and begged to be traded to a contending team before the trade deadline at the end of the month.

He couldn't understand how anyone - a group that included Chase Utley, and, at the time, Rollins - would use a full no-trade clause to stay with a Phillies team destined for last place.

"Some guys want to stay on a losing team?" Papelbon said that night. "That's mind-boggling to me."

Fast forward a half year later, and the Phillies have traded away one-fourth of their starting lineup. They haven't upgraded an offense that finished with a .665 OPS (only two teams in baseball were worse).

The front office has come out and said the team would not contend for the next 2 to 3 years. And Papelbon is OK with sticking around on a team forecast by everyone, from the sabermetrics community to Vegas oddsmakers to be the worst team in baseball in 2015.

"I'm still not so sold on this entire rebuilding," Papelbon said yesterday. "I know that that's one of the things that myself and some of the veterans that are going to be coming into camp want to probably sit down with [team president] Pat [Gillick] and Ruben and [manager Ryne Sandberg] and say, 'Hey, you know. Let's get a little bit better feel on the state of the organization and let's come up with a plan and go one way or the other.' I just think we're kind of in limbo now. Spring training is going to be able to dictate that."

In the spring training gospel according to Jonathan Papelbon, "every year is new" and if you use recent-past performance to forecast a near-future outcome, "then you live in the past."

"I think the biggest thing that a lot of people aren't seeing is that Philadelphia still has some great players," Papelbon said. "Are we getting old? Do we need to make adjustments? Well, everybody has to do that at certain points of their career. I still think we can compete. Is that crazy for me to think that? You tell me."