With all of the talk about the gaping holes at the back of the Red Sox rotation, it seems that people have forgotten about the serious questions that exist in their bullpen. Last season, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon were a frightening tandem for teams to see at the end of the game. In most cases, if you faced both pitchers in the same game, it meant your chances of pulling off a comeback were pretty slim.
After the 2011 season came to a close, Papelbon took his fastball, splitter, Mensa card, and carefully constructed wit to Philadelphia. Presumably, he’ll be able to wow Philly fans both during the game and at the high brow parties he’s sure to be hosting after the game. Bard, still with the team, is attempting to blaze a new trail for himself by attempting to become a starting pitcher. While it’s no guarantee he’ll succeed in his latest endeavor, one can’t deny his supreme talent and devastating fastball/slider combination. Provided he can establish his change-up as a neutralizing pitch against lefties and exhibit improved control, he should turn out to be a pretty solid starting pitcher.
To replace this terrible twosome, newly minted General Manager, Ben Cherington, acquired Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon in a pair of shrewd trades that cost him nothing more than a few surplus prospects that had no future in Boston. While it’s true that the new closer/set-up combination isn’t quite as strong as the previous one, it’s still pretty damn good. Bailey has three years of experience closing games in Oakland, and shown an ability to limit walks, hinder home runs, and miss bats. His issue isn’t talent. It’s health. If he can manage to stay healthy, he’ll be successful. Melancon is a former Yankee prospect that spent last season as Houston’s closer. Now, he might not be anyone’s first choice to be a closer, but he’s living proof that closers are made, not born. While he doesn’t have a blazing fastball like Bard, he induces a ton of ground balls and uses his curve ball to get out of jams. Based on his past (albeit limited) performance history and current projections, he looks like a solid choice as the primary set-up man. Neither pitcher is a “sure thing” for greatness in 2012, but they’re “locks” for their roles.
Beyond Bailey and Melancon, it gets a little murky. Sound familiar? It should. This has been an ongoing theme for the Red Sox over the past couple of seasons. Good closer, good set up man, question marks everywhere else. The good news is that there are several arms currently in camp that could play significant roles out of the pen this year. Alex Speier of WEEI did a pretty good job discussing this the other day, but I have a few thoughts of my own that I’d like to share.
Alfredo Aceves – I know that a lot of people are hoping Bobby V slots Aceves into the fifth (fourth?) slot in the rotation, but it doesn’t appear to be in the cards. Recently, Valentine praised Aceves’s abilities out of the bullpen last year, and really seemed to focus on the success he had out of the swingman role. While I think he deserves better than the “swingman” title, I think his versatility serves the club well. He’s a solid choice as a spot starter, can pitch in long relief, and has proven he can be trusted in high leverage situations. Honestly, you could a lot worse than someone who produced a 3.96 FIP out of the bullpen last season.
Matt Albers – Yes, I know. That name probably makes you wretch at the very sight of it. His struggles in August and September were epic, and certainly contributed to the club’s downfall last season. All of that said, he was one of the best and most valuable relief pitcher prior to August 1st, producing a 2.09 ERA to go with a 43/18 K/BB ratio in 43 innings. His problems after that point were do to poor command that resulted in excess walks and home runs allowed. If he can right whatever was wrong at the end of last season, he should be a serviceable piece in lower leverage situation.
Andrew Miller - Yes, I know. This one hurts even more than Albers, and understandably so. Still, it’s pretty likely he makes the team regardless. In most situations last season, Miller looked horrible. He walked too many batters, allowed too much contact, and gave up too many home runs. All in all, his 5.12 FIP was frighteningly accurate portrayal of his performance. Unfortunately, people still see a lot of potential in him, and no team wants to be the one that gave up on him just before he put it all together. I understand this sentiment, but I see it more as an irrational justification than anything else. If Miller does remain on the team, I’d like it to be as a LOOGY. In 18-2/3 innings against LHPs (admittedly, a small sample) last season, he produced a 2.01 FIP and a 25/6 K/BB ratio. Unfortunately, his career numbers don’t back up his ability to shut down lefties, but it’s probably his best bet to succeed. Also, Franklin Morales‘ injury increases his chances of making the club out of camp.
Smart Bets But Questionable
Felix Doubront – While Doubront seems to be a dark horse candidate for the rotation, I think it’s a safer bet to assume he ends up in the bullpen. I can’t envision Bobby V choosing a scenario where two of his starting pitchers are on 150-170 innings limits. As a result, Aaron Cook and Vicente Padilla seem like more palatable choices. Doubront blew his shot last season when he came into camp out of shape, and then suffered through an injury-riddled, ineffective season in the minors (4.51 FIP in 70-1/3 innings in AAA in 2011). This year, he seems to have a different attitude, and came into camp ready to compete. That’s probably a good thing because he’s out of options. If the Red Sox decide not to include him on the Opening Day roster, they’ll need to either release or trade him. At 24, Doubront’s still pretty young, and fairly projectable. Some see him as a starter, but that won’t likely happen in Boston. Armed with a good fastball and a very good change-up, I can see him soaking up some valuable high leverage innings. That said, his command escapes him occasionally, and his curve ball can best be described as “loopy” and “fringy.” Luckily, he’ll only need two pitches to survive in the pen. I think this is the year he finally sticks.
Michael Bowden - Like Doubront (and Miller, actually), Bowden’s out of options. The Red Sox will either have to add him to the 25-man roster by Opening Day, or risk losing him via waivers. If they do expose him to waivers, there’s little chance of him clearing it without being claimed. The funny thing about Bowden is that it’s never been talent that’s kept him out of the big leagues. Instead it’s been timing. Whether pitching in the rotation or out of the bullpen, his production has remained steady. Unfortunately for him, somebody manages to leap above him on the depth chart just before they’re ready to call his name. Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson, Daniel Bard, Felix Doubront, and Kyle Weiland have all played this role at one time or another. Bowden has done everything that’s been asked for him and more. He’s learned new pitches, changed roles, and even given up an offseason to pitch winter ball in Venezuela. If he fails to make the club out of camp, it won’t be for lack of trying. Luckily, Valentine seems to be impressed with the former 2005 sandwich pick. Bowden displayed considerable success out of the closer slot last year in Pawtucket (3.20 FIP). Now, he just needs to translate his AAA success to big league success.
Injured But We’ll Hear From Them Later
Franklin Morales – Morales is a bit like Miller. Great stuff, tons of potential, and little to show for it. The difference between the two pitchers is that Morales has actually had some success in the majors. Additionally, he looked pretty solid after coming over in a trade from the Rockies last summer; posting a 3.92 FIP and a 31/11 K/BB ratio in 31 innings. He has a powerful fastball, an unbelievable change-up, and a good slider. He’s probably the one pitcher in the bullpen (outside of Bailey and Melancon) that has the biggest chance to be a game changer. I don’t see the Red Sox carrying three lefties in the bullpen at once, so his activation will likely mean the end of either Miller or Doubront in Boston.
Rich Hill – Hill is still recovering from last summer’s Tommy John surgery, but he’s recovering a lot faster than everyone was expecting. While he certainly wowed a lot of people last season with his performance, we need to keep it in perspective. Yes, he looked great, but he did so in eight innings. I have no idea what to expect out of him in 2012, but I’m very curious to see. We should probably expect him back by Memorial Day barring any setbacks.
Bobby Jenks – Who am I kidding? He’s not coming back this season. He’s been through an awful lot with his botched back surgery. I wish him well, but it appears his career with the Red Sox will end up being nothing more than 15-2/3 ineffective innings.
Junichi Tazawa - Last season, Tazawa looked pretty ineffective in his first several appearances coming back from Tommy John surgery. The good news is that he seemed to improve as he went along. He showed his best stuff in Pawtucket where he was missing bats and exhibiting good control. Unless there are either some additional injuries or someone’s performance takes a turn for the worse, Tazawa will likely start the season back in AAA. The bullpen is far too crowded for him at this point.
Alex Wilson - Wilson will almost certainly be sent to AAA to start the season where he’ll almost certainly serve as rotation depth this season. Ultimately though, he seems destined for the bullpen if he ends up starting his major league career in Boston. He’s another nice pitcher (see Bowden, Doubront, Weiland) that is talented enough to start somewhere–just not here.