Yet, outside of Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard and Manny Delcarmen there has not been a lot to like about the Sox bullpen this year. You probably had the feeling, as I did, heading into the season that the relief corps would be somewhat of a problem when the big decision heading out of Fort Myers was whether to carry Scott Schoeneweis or Scott Atchison.
Into the second week of June, the Sox bullpen has an ERA of 4.24. Compare that to the strong relief that a team like the Padres are getting (2.70 ERA) or or the Rays (3.23) and you see just how far off the pace Boston has fallen in an area that presumably was a strength coming into the season and was a relative strength last year (3.80 ERA).
The questions are simple: what has gone wrong and how can it be fixed?
This, as it always is with bullpen analysis, is easy to define. The Sox expected a semblance of the strong performances that Hideki Okajima and Ramon Ramirez had in 2009 to be replicated in 2010. Add to that duos woes the Atchison, Schoeneweis, Joe Nelson revolving chair of ineptitude and the problems are self evident. In the last five years or so under Terry Francona, breaking the Boston bullpen down has been a simple chore. Before the closer (be it Keith Foulke, Jonathan Papelbon or that brief stint where Curt Schilling saved games) Tito usually had three arms that he liked to bring into games the Sox were winning, tied or close (the positives) and three arms that would come into losing games or in particular situations (the negatives). Last year the three positives were Bard, Ramirez and Okajima and sometimes Delcarmen. This year Delcarmen is definitely part of the positives but the performance of Okajima and Ramirez make it difficult for Francona to round out a positive trio.
Predicting reliever performance outside of guys like Mariano Rivera, Papelbon and a healthy Joe Nathan is the biggest conundrum in baseball. Guys are terrific one year and terrible the next, even when you break it down into the advanced metrics to look for some consistency, it just is not there a lot of the time. Ask most general managers how to fix their bullpen woes and they will start flaying the skin off their own arms. For the most part the equation comes down to putting together a group of arms they “think” they can trust and hope everybody performs the way they should. Sometimes they are pleasantly surprised (like Cla Meredith’s initial time in San Diego). Sometimes they are not (Meredith’s recent time in Baltimore).
Now to the second half of the equation. The two places the Sox can look to for some stabilizing arms at this time of year are either in the farm system or via trade (with some slim pickings on the waiver wire, sure). Down in Pawtucket there are a couple arms who could serve well. Felix Doubront has a 2.73 FIP with 7.76 K/9 (according to Minor League Splits) rate and is effective against right-handed hitters with a K/9 of 8.66. He has not allowed a home run in 62.2 innings this year between Portland and the PawSox. He could cut down his walk rate of 3.3 BB/9 this year but that could be said about a lot of pitchers. The 22-year-old pitcher will definitely see time in Boston before the year is out but the question is when they will deem him ready (he only has 16.2 innings so far at Triple A) and how much they will utilize him when they do.
Then there is Robert Manuel turning some heads with a strong performance as Pawtucket’s closer. He has seven saves thus far, a FIP of 2.23 and a K/9 of 7.63 split pretty evenly against righties and lefties and also has not allowed a home run through 30.2 innings in 2010. He may not have the type of stuff that can play at the major league level but look for the 26-year-old to get a shot at the big show sometime soon.
What is out there on the market? As of June 10, not that much. Teams do not like to sell bullpen arms this early in the season when it is still conceivable they could get back into the race. If Kenny Williams decides that the White Sox are simply not going anywhere this year, Bobby Jenks could be available, for what that is worth (not much right now). Theo Epstein might be able to pull Matt Thornton out from Chicago as his 12.8 K/9 through 26 innings is impressive. Houston is absolutely terrible and the Sox will not be going after Roy Oswalt, but a reunion with Brandon Lyon would not be outside the realm of possibilities.
At this point there needs to be some type of shakeup and soon. Bring up Manuel now and see how his stuff plays and then go looking for some kind of patch on the market. Hope that Boof Bonser has recaptured some of his old form. It will not take a lot, really. One or two new arms and some improvement from Okajima or Ramirez and we are no longer having this discussion. If the Sox really think they can catch the Yankees and Rays, an improvement in the bullpen is a must.