An Early Look at the 2012 Bullpen

One of the biggest difference we’ll see between the 2011 and 2012 versions of the Boston Red Sox is their revamped bullpen.  Ace reliever Jonathan Papelbon has taken his services to Philadelphia; fireballing set-up man Daniel Bard has been moved into the rotation; and the steady Dan Wheeler has signed a minor league deal with the Indians last week.  Over the past couple of months, Ben Cherington has gone to great lengths to rebuild the bullpen with talented, yet cheaper arms.  Through a few shrewd trades that sacrificed nothing more than surplus talent, he’s put together a solid group that has the potential of being extraordinarily effective if a few things break in their favor.  In preparation for the upcoming season (albeit a very early one), I thought I’d take a look at the projected construction of the 2012 bullpen.

Andrew Bailey (Closer) – I don’t think Bailey needs to be reminded he has some big shoes to fill.  His predecessor, Jonathan Papelbon, displayed long-term dominance that has rarely been seen by closers not named Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, or Goose Gossage.  During his six-plus year tenure in Boston, he racked up 15.1 fWAR, produced a 2.60 FIP, and mowed down nearly 30% of the batters he faced.   Bailey won’t be able to replicate Papelbon’s success, but then again, he doesn’t really need to as countless lesser pitchers have successfully encumbered the closer role over the years.

Bailey’s a pretty solid pitcher in his own right.  He has a three pitch repertoire that includes a four-seamer, cutter, and curve.  He has good command of all three, and can generate whiffs with the cutter and four-seamer.  Between 2009 and 2011, he had considerable success pitching out of the closer role for the A’s, producing a 2.74 FIP, striking out 25% of the batters he faced, and walking only 7%.  Due to his orientation toward fly balls, he was able to take advantage of the vast outfield and foul territory dimensions at the O.com Coliseum.  While he won’t be allowed that same luxury pitching half of his games at Fenway where foul territory is pretty scarce, this change shouldn’t be too much of a concern.  Bailey’s biggest hurdle will be avoiding the injury bug.  He’s only thrown 90-2/3 innings over the past two seasons, and has experienced elbow issues to boot.  If he can stay healthy, we could be looking at a solid 2-fWAR reliever finishing off our games.

Mark Melancon (Set-Up) – While he isn’t an ideal pitcher for the closer job, Melancon did an admirable job filling the role for the Houston Astros last season, producing a 3.24 FIP and saving 20 games in 74-1/3 innings.  Now with the Red Sox, he’ll be called upon by Bobby Valentine to fill the crucial, high leverage situations in the seventh and eighth innings that Daniel Bard used to lock down.  Based on his skill set alone, he appears to be more than capable of doing the job.  Melancon has a five pitch repertoire, but he primarily relies on his four-seamer, cutter, and curve to get hitters out.  Unlike most pitchers who throw a curveball; he not only induces a lot of swings (47%), but also generates a ton of whiffs (17.4%).  As a result, it’s a pretty effective weapon in his arsenal, especially when thrown to righties.  Last season, he exhibited a noticeable righty (2.64 FIP)/lefty (4.17) platoon split.  While his strikeout rate (21%) between the two groups remained static, his walk and HR/FB rates spiked against opposite-handed batters.  This isn’t terribly uncommon in the relief pitcher corps, but we can probably pin some of the “blame” on small sample size (particularly with his 23.1% HR/FB rate).  In the event of an injury to Bailey, Melancon will likely be the first option to soak up save opportunities.

Alfredo Aceves (Set-Up) - I know that he’s been “penciled in” for the rotation, but I can’t envision a scenario where the bullpen loses both Aceves and Bard.  With Cherington still searching high and low for legitimate starting pitching help both via the trade and free agent markets, it seems safe to say the front office feels more comfortable with one of them remaining in the pen.  Additionally, with Bailey and Melancon on the roster, moving Bard to relief sends an odd message.  That leaves Aceves as the one going back to the pen.  Truth be told, that’s probably where he belongs.  Much of Aceves’s value is tied to his versatility.  He can start, provide long relief, and fill high leverage innings late in the game. As such, it’s in the Red Sox’s best interest to keep him in a position where he can be the most effective and provide the most value.

Matt Albers (Middle Relief) – When Bobby Jenks went down with a back injury early on in the 2011 season, Albers unexpectedly stepped into the role as the seventh inning set-up man and flourished.  That is, until the calendar hit August 1st, and then everything went to pot.  In August (6.37 FIP) and September (7.33), his walk and home run rates skyrocketed, and his effectiveness cratered.  He blew several key leads down the stretch, and Terry Francona eventually removed him from high-leverage situations.  As a result of his late season struggles, Albers will take a lesser role in the bullpen this year.  If he can regain his early-2011 season form, he could become a very effective reliever.  Unfortunately, track record is not on his side.

Franklin Morales (Middle Relief) - Over the years, baseball people have gushed over Morales’s potential.  Some felt he could have been a top of the rotation starting pitcher, while others fancied him as a dominant closer.  Now 26 years old, he’s achieved neither of these expectations, and it seems very unlikely he ever will.  Still, he’s a hard throwing lefty with an above-average curve and a nasty change-up.  If he can ever learn to harness his stuff, he’s more than capable of putting together a few dominant seasons out of the bullpen.

Andrew Miller (LOOGY) - Miller’s adventures in the rotation last year were nothing short of a disaster (5.41 FIP).  If the Red Sox want to get anything out of the former first round pick, they’ll need to move him to the bullpen and convert him to a LOOGY.  Last season, Miller had a 2.01 FIP and 4.17 K/BB ratio against lefties versus a 6.37 FIP and 0.71 K/BB ratio against righties.  You could argue that last season’s sample is not large enough to make that conclusion (and you would be right), but his career platoon splits don’t help his case.

Michael Bowden (Mop-Up) – After a successful run as Pawtucket’s closer last season, it looks like Bowden will finally has a serious chance to stick with the big club.  He’ll likely serve in long relief during low leverage, mop-up type situations to start.  If he can prove to be effective in that role (something he’s yet to prove at the major league level), it’s possible he’ll be given higher leverage situations.  In order for that to happen, he’ll need to induce a lot more swings, and generate a few more strikeouts.

Categories: Alfredo Aceves Andrew Bailey Andrew Miller Boston Red Sox Daniel Bard Franklin Morales Jonathan Papelbon Mark Melancon Matt Albers Michael Bowden

After being slapped with a restraining order for stealing Nick Cafardo's mail, I was forced into retirement for a brief period of time. As fun as it was to lounge around the community pool and play shuffleboard with noted internet columnist, Murray Chass, I quickly felt a yearning to write again. Now in my second tenure with Fire Brand, I have set lofty goals of achieving world domination, ending the plight of the hipsters, and becoming BFFs with Mike Trout. I am fluent in two languages (Sarcasm and English, in that order); have an intimate relationship with M&Ms; firmly believe that Lucille is the best character on Arrested Development; and spend my spare time trolling select members of the Boston media. You can follow me on Twitter @Chip_Buck.

15 Responses to “An Early Look at the 2012 Bullpen” Subscribe

  1. williamjtasker January 30, 2012 at 8:28 AM #

    Great overview, Chip. If Bailey stays healthy and Melancon is as good as I think he is, they have a solid one two. The rest gets kind of iffy for me after that. Aceves is the new Ramiro Mendoza (another reliever who pitched for both the Yankees and Red Sox). Both looked brilliant at times and can get just as brutal in others. Morales can be the surprise here but I have no faith in Albers and Miller.

    • ChipBuck January 30, 2012 at 8:58 AM #

      Thanks William. I don't think Bailey/Melancon will match the 4.8 fWAR production Papelbon/Bard provided in 2011, but they should be able to match/surpass the 2.7 fWAR mark from 2010. Provided they're healthy, of course. I have a little more faith in Aceves than you do, but I see your point. His control is a bit spotty, but I think he'd be much more successful out of the bullpen. I have little faith in Albers or Miller, but they could have some success if (a) they get a little lucky, and (b) get placed in the right role. I strongly stress the word could, though.

  2. Carts13 January 30, 2012 at 9:06 AM #

    I think we'll see Padilla in the pen as well, either at he expense if Albers or Bowden. At this stage in his career Padilla looks a better reliever than starter but will be stretched out enought to go 2 innings like Aceves. I suppose the only thing against him is maybe too similar to Aceves, both in terms of pitching and personality. The addition of Rich Hill, hopefully around June/July will be big as well as that would give us two solid LH relievers instead of the heart attack of Andrew Miller. I suppose the big thing for the pen is which Albers/Morales/Miller do we get? The good versions are all well above average pitchers but prone to huge collapses which have ruined their careers. I suppose that generally sums up most Reluef Pitchers though!

    • ChipBuck January 30, 2012 at 3:49 PM #

      Interesting idea for Padilla. It's certainly a possibility, but I feel he and Aceves might be a little too similar. As for Albers/Morales/Miller, if one of the three can put together a solid season, the bullpen should be in pretty good shape.

  3. Johnsilver January 30, 2012 at 10:47 AM #

    Just a small bone to pick..

    Lee Smith's name is always left out when it comes to dominate closers and he was dominate longer than Gossage.

    • ChipBuck January 30, 2012 at 11:28 AM #

      I left Smith out because I don't think he was a dominant closer. He was very good, but I feel his value's grossly overrated by his save totals. Saves are arbitrary, and seem like more of a function of opportunity than talent.

  4. Aaron January 30, 2012 at 12:08 PM #

    Maybe I've missed it but I'd love to see this kind of post done on all the potential #5 starters Cherington seems to be collecting. They all seem like a long shot to me (and hopefully we pick up a Jackson or Oswalt type to make it moot) but some handicapping and analysis would be great.

  5. Gerry January 30, 2012 at 1:55 PM #

    It seemed to me that Bowden was generally dominant in one inning sprints, especially last year, but that could be because he was coming off a very successful stint as a remarkably effective Closer for Pawtucket, though that has been his track record since he was switched to the Pen. I see him as more of a sure thing for 7th inning than Albers, though Albers could prove me wrong, as he proved everyone wrong for much of 2011. Best case scenario, Bobby V has 4-5 excellent choices in the last few innings. I hope Bowden gets his
    chance this year but is not used in multiple inning situations. He pitches like a closer.

    Am surprised you don't have Doubront in there as a long reliever. Out
    of options, the Sox have had him on an intense workout program stateside to insure he comes to ST in shape, healthy, and ready to
    pitch. IMO the Sox have some good pitching talent if used properly (i.e.
    Miller as loogy, Bowden as a 7th inning 'closer'). Unless Doubront is the #5 or traded (i hope not) he could be a solid lefty version of 2011
    Acevas in 2012. I agree that this is a good BP and if the pitchers are
    used to the strengths, as Wheeler was not, then it could be much better
    than last year, with several RP's good at long relief and several at
    ending a tight game.

    • ChipBuck January 30, 2012 at 8:33 PM #

      Bowden put up a 4.05 ERA, but it didn't match his peripherals (4.93 FIP) so we can probably expect some regression. He's exhibited nothing better than below average control in the majors, and I don't see any reason why we should expect anything better at this point. He could turn out to be a better pitcher in 2012, but he won't be given high leverage innings early in the season.

      As for Doubront…I've heard a lot of people mention his name with regards to the starting rotation, but no one within the organization shares that view point. He has a good fastball, solid change-up, and a fringy curve. It's very hard to survive as a starter in the majors with only two pitchers, especially when you're a back of the rotation guy. He could crack the bullpen, but it'll likely happen at the expense of Andrew Miller. With Miller due a guaranteed $1M this year, he'll be a lot more difficult to cut that Doubront who will make the minimum. I expect him to be included in a trade before Opening Day.

  6. Cory January 30, 2012 at 2:41 PM #

    Chip I see that Bowden has been an extreme fly-ball pitcher while in the Majors. Is that a fluke or something that he has shown throughout his whole career?

    • ChipBuck January 30, 2012 at 3:10 PM #

      Bowden always had flyball tendencies, but they became far more extreme once he was promoted to AAA in 2008.

  7. marcos January 30, 2012 at 3:19 PM #

    I think Bowden and/or Doubront could get traded. I believe they are outta options

    • ChipBuck January 30, 2012 at 3:49 PM #

      You are correct, they are both out of options. The thought is that one of them would be traded in a package for Gavin Floyd if that came to fruition.

  8. toosoxy January 30, 2012 at 4:27 PM #

    i would so rather see aceves in the rotation than bard…

  9. Gerry January 31, 2012 at 2:57 AM #

    As much as I would like to see Bowden and Doubront succeed in a Sox uni, we NEED a Gavin Floyd and that sub $4M AAV contract. After losing two SS to trade, three pitchers and two OF to injuries, and knowing Floyd will cost prospects/players, I hope we dont rob Peter to pay Paul and wind up with serious depth issues at a position or two. IMO, no on Lava, Iglesias, Middlebrooks, Kalish, and preserve key prospects from lower levels.