Unlike in recent years past, the Red Sox bullpen has been pretty solid this year. Theo spent a lot of time and money this past offseason rebuilding the bullpen with a few established high end names and a couple of bargain basement value signings. While his acquisitions have produced some mixed results, overall the experience has been pretty positive.
Jonathan Papelbon, save for a couple of unlucky outings, has led the charge. After tough 2009 and 2010 seasons, he’s returned to form posting big strikeout numbers, a 7.00 K/BB ratio, and an FIP of 2.02. For the first time since the 2008 playoff run, he looks the dominant closer capable of striking fear into lineups across the league. Daniel Bard, following up his dominant 2010, has managed to take it up another notch. He’s proven to be invaluable to Terry Francona, being trusted to pitch in the highest leverage of situations regardless of the inning. Among relief pitchers throughout baseball, Bard places third behind only Jonny Venters and Koji Uehara among pitchers with the highest win probability added/leverage index (WPA/LI) score. Matt Albers has been a revelation this season, seemingly conquering his command issues from his time with the Orioles, and posting excellent strikeout numbers to go with his above average GB/FB ratio. He’s fit in beautifully as Tito’s number three arm out of the bullpen.
Outside of those three pitchers, the performance has a little spotty. Still, considering the injuries the pitching staff has sustained this season, it’s hard to complain too much. Dan Wheeler has come around recently, proving to be very effective against RHH. Franklin Morales, despite an unattractive ERA, has shown improved command and an ability to retire lefties consistently, since being obtained from the Rockies in May. Bobby Jenks, who was brought in to pitch some of the high leverage situations being handled by Albers, has struggled with both command and injury issues since the start of the season. Rich Hill, who management hoped would be the lefty killer out of the bullpen pitched beautifully before suffering a severe elbow injury that will cost him the rest of the season. Michael Bowden, Scott Atchison, Tommy Hottavy, Hideki Okijima, and Felix Doubront have all filled in admirably, but none appear to be long term solutions this season.
With Jenks perpetually on the disabled list due to various injuries; Hill shelved for the remainder of the season and beyond; and Tim Wakefield fully transitioned from his role as the long reliever/swing man into a permanent member of the starting rotation, the Red Sox could probably use a re-enforcement or two in the bullpen. With the July 31st non-waiver trading deadline less than a week away, I thought it’d be a good idea to review a few of the potential trade targets the Red Sox front office could be pursuing.
Koji Uehara – Since transitioning from the rotation to the bullpen prior to the 2010 season, Uehara has quietly become of the best relievers in baseball. Armed with plus-command and a surprisingly deadly fastball/splitter combination that induces a great deal of swinging strikes (despite mediocre velocity that sits in the upper 80s), he’s earned the right to pitch in any high leverage situation that comes his way. For someone whose been equally effective against LHH (.143 BAA) as he’s been against RHH (.149 BAA), he’d be an ideal fit between Bard and Albers on the bullpen depth chart. Unfortunately, he pitches for a division rival, so it’s unlikely the Red Sox will be able to obtain him without overpaying. According to Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun, the Rangers, Twins, Pirates, and Tigers are considered to be the front runners. Still, a guy can dream.
Mike Adams – If you think Uehara has been good, Adams has been even better. As one of the premium set-up men in baseball for four years running, Adams primarily throws a hard breaking slider, while mixing in a two-seamer, four-seamer, and (occasionally) a curve ball to get opposing batters out. He’s exhibited elite level command, and keeps the ball on the ground. Adams has one more season of arbitration eligibility remaining. The Padres, looking to sell high on a 32 year old reliever, are requesting a hefty sum in return. Many teams, including the Yankees, have been turned off by the Padres asking price. Considering Theo’s recent success in picking up relievers on the cheap, the Red Sox will probably pass on Adams. The Phillies are rumored to be the top suitor.
Heath Bell – As the closer for the Padres, Bell has received quite a bit of attention. Unfortunately, based purely off of his 2011 numbers, it’s not really deserved. He’s registered levels of contact that rival the worst seasons of his career; produced an 18% K% rate that sits nearly 3% below his personal all-time worst; and posted a GB/FB ratio that’s taken yet another step in the wrong direction. So why are teams so interested in the three-time All-Star? To date, he’s converted 28 of 30 save chances; posted a 2.45 ERA; and allowed only one home run through 40-1/3 innings. When you put up those kinds of numbers, and combine it with a very good track record, even the smartest talent evaluators will overlook the warning signs. Bell’s been getting lucky with both home runs (2.3% HR/FB rate) and on balls in play (.258 vs. career .302) all season; neither of which are likely to continue after he leaves the friendly confines of Petco Park. At 33 years of age, he appears started on the downward slope of his career, and no one seems to be noticing.
Kyle Farnsworth – Throughout his career, Farnsworth has been touted as having the “stuff” of a fireman, but the results of an arsonist. This season, things have changed dramatically. He’s no longer coming into games and blowing leads. Instead, he’s holding them. You trust him, right? Yeah, I don’t either. Still, if the Rays decide to sell high on Farnsworth (not a bad idea, even if they decide they’re otherwise buyers), someone will pick him up. Will it be the Sox? Probably not. It’s tough to imagine him being traded to a division rival; especially a division rival with whom the Rays are competing for a playoff spot. Still, the Red Sox could kick the tires on him, but that’s about it.
Craig Breslow – Despite being a lefty whose historically been very tough on LHH throughout his career, Breslow’s allowed a .383 BAA against lefties this season (versus a .247 BAA against righties). While it might appear that he’s struggled against like handed batters, his 5.50 K/BB and 2.74 FIP against LHH suggests he’s been much better than his numbers suggest. With Hill out for the year; Doubront in need of additional development; and Morales being a wild card, Breslow appears to be the kind of low-risk, medium-return relief pitcher Theo Epstein loves to acquire. According to MLB Trade Rumors, Breslow has drawn interest from both the Red Sox and Yankees. If he returns, it will be his second tour in Boston. His first came in a 12 inning stint during the 2006 season.
Tyler Clippard – Clippard, a discarded Yankee prospect, has put together a solid career pitching middle relief for the Washington Nationals over the past few years. Since switching from the rotation to the bullpen, he’s put up impressive strikeout numbers, and markedly improved his command. Though he does throw an occasional cutter and slider, his primary weapons are his four-seam fastball and change-up, both of whichinduce a lot of swinging strikes. While his GB/FB ratio heavily favors fly balls, he’s made up for it this season with an incredibly high 25% pop-up rate. The Red Sox have reportedly checked in with the Nationals about Clippard’s availability, but with four seasons of arbitration eligibility remaning, the cost may outweigh the benefits. The Braves, Yankees, and Rangers have also expressed interest in the 6’3″ right-hander.
Matt Thornton – Thornton throws one pitch, a four-seam fastball, and he throws it very hard. Ok, he mixes in an occasional slider and change-up, but you get the point. In the past, he’s used his blazing fastball to blow away hitters, and get easy outs via pop-ups. Despite pitching with similar velocity, he’s seen his strikeout rate plummet from 34% to 20%, and his contact rate rise from 71% to 81% from 2010 to 2011 respectively. Combine the additional batted balls being put into play with a little bit of unfortunate luck, and it’s not surprising Thornton’s ERA estimators (FIP, xFIP, SIERA, and tRA) all have show his performance regressing by at least a run or more. At 34, while he’s not a spring chicken, he’s shown no signs of losing his velocity. Provided his luck regresses back toward the mean (and it appears it may’ve already started), there’s no reason he can’t regain his dominant form. At 50-51, the White Sox sit in third place, 3.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers. Thornton’s availability depends a lot on whether the team sees themselves as “buyers” or “sellers.” If they decide to be sellers, Thornton seems like a good bet to be moved.
Leo Nunez – Nunez pitches for the Marlins, makes $3.65M, and is eligible for his third and final year of arbitration after the season. Do you know what that means? Yes, it means the Marlins will probably look to move their closer at the deadline. Pretty predictable, right? While Nunez is by no means a poor closer, he’s probably better cast as a high leverage middle reliever. Armed with a three pitch repertoire, he has solid command and a devestating whiff inducing change-up. While the Red Sox haven’t been mentioned in any rumors regarding Nunez thus far, the front office will probably kick the tires on all available arms. The Angels and Phillies are among the teams indicating interest.
The trade market for relief pitching is much deeper than at other positions. There were others I could have named (Joakim Soria, Octavio Dotel, and Jason Frasor come to mind), but chose not to because the trade rumors surrounding them weren’t as strong as the eight I’d mentioned. As teams make their final decision on whether to “buy,” “sell,” or “stay put” over the next couple of days, we’ll likely see a flurry of activity that will result in several of the names above being moved.
Which reliever would you (realistically) like to see the Red Sox acquire? Leave your comments in the section provided below!