The Red Sox may have the ignominy of losing over 90 games for the first time since 1966, but one thing that’s gone right is the bullpen.
Over the last decade, the 2012 Red Sox boast the third-best bullpen, behind only 2011 (3.67 ERA) and 2007 (3.10). The 3.77 bullpen ERA the Sox have accomplished is primarily due to the awesome work put forth by Junichi Tazawa, who has racked up a 1.47 ERA in 43 innings. Other players who have a sub-3 ERA with at least 40 innings pitched include Scott Atchinson (1.60 ERA in 50 2/3 innings) and Clayton Mortensen, who has an even 40 with a 2.93 mark. (Matt Albers missed the cut-off by two outs and posted an ERA of 2.29 before being traded.)
Having such a successful bullpen two consecutive years is a major accomplishment, especially considering the bullpens differed in managers and pitching coaches — not to mention that the makeup of the bullpens also differ in names. Last year you had Jonathan Papelbon, Alfredo Aceves and Daniel Bard punching out batters.
While the bullpen figures to undergo some change, whether that be by trade (Atchinson? Andrew Miller?) or by cutting ties outright (Alfredo Aceves?), here’s betting that the 2013 bullpen will boast some very familiar pitchers. Let’s look at contenders to be in next year’s bullpen as well as potential changes.
Andrew Bailey: Bailey has had an awful September, but he’s still the closer in Boston. Daniel Bard has a long road back to challenge Bailey for the spot while Melancon seems better suited to be a set-up man. Bailey has struggled with control this year, but that’s not entirely surprising given he missed the first four months and had thumb surgery on his throwing hand, which is likely affecting his control as well. He’ll come into next year as the presumptive favorite to close. He’s not really an option to be traded — he has low value coming off the year he had and would be too risky for other teams to give up what Boston deserves to receive in a deal.
Mark Melancon: After beginning the year getting his brains absolutely beat in, Melancon has rebounded nicely. While his 6.20 ERA is a red flag, he was extremely unlucky as shown by his 3.45 xFIP. Melancon should have a good chance of settling in as the set-up man, although he’ll have to share time with other relievers in the role, most notably Tazawa and Franklin Morales. That’s a pretty good thing when you don’t have one clear-cut setup man because of a whole host of candidates. He could potentially be traded this offseason, especially if a team is willing to look past the ERA and value Melancon as the Sox will be doing. With the depth of the bullpen, a trade can’t be completely ruled out.
Junichi Tazawa: The Japanese kid had a breakout year to the point where he was an elite talent. In 43 innings, he walked just five and punched out 45. If he keeps this up, Tazawa could be the closer of the future. For now, he’s assured of a spot in the bullpen next season and will probably open up in the seventh inning to ensure he’s not thrown in the fire just yet. I don’t think anyone saw this kind of season coming and while there might be regression involved, it’s clear that Tazawa can be a quality reliever. It’s doubtful the Red Sox move Tazawa given his potential, but in a bigger deal, he could be a piece headed out.
Craig Breslow: The lefty will be back for another season as he’s tied to the team through arbitration. I’ve always liked Breslow, and he equipped himself ably upon rejoining Boston. With Breslow, Morales, Andrew Miller and possibly Rich Hill, the team suddenly has a wealth of left-handers, making it likely that at least one — if not two — are somehow moved. Breslow and Morales have the advantage of being more complete relievers and not situational left-handers, so they’ll fetch more value back in trade. The team could conceivably go with three left-handers in the bullpen with one serving as a LOOGY.
Daniel Bard: Out of options, the Sox aren’t going to have much choice but to carry Bard on the squad and cross their fingers that an entire offseason getting back on track works wonders. His trade value is near zero, but don’t fool yourself. This was just one season from hell for Bard, complicated by transitioning to the rotation. While Bard hasn’t quite ironed out his control troubles that resulted, he’s already converted from a wild starter to a dominant reliever already, so don’t write him off based on one bad year.
Scott Atchison: I can’t see how Atchison returns to the Red Sox next year, even with as good a season as he’s had. So far, we’ve pretty much affirmed that Bailey, Melancon, Tazawa, Bard and Breslow (or if you prefer, at least one-left hander) are on the team. That means that five of seven spots in the bullpen are already accounted for. And we have yet to touch on five other strong candidates for the bullpen, plus three depth pieces. Atchison won’t fetch much back in trade thanks to his age and injury questions, but many teams would happily grab the righty as part of a bigger deal or on his own while giving up what would most likely amount to depth pieces for the Sox. As we all saw this year, depth was a big issue, so expect some smaller moves to be made to help accumulate depth.
Franklin Morales: Morales was already shut down this year with a tired arm after throwing 76 1/3 innings this year, the most he’s ever thrown in the majors by far. The lefty has an uphill climb to win a rotation spot next season, but he seems like he should be a lock to make the bullpen and serve as a swingman, making spot starts as needed. He’s also a trade candidate, much like Breslow, but given the success in a Red Sox uniform he’s had to date, I don’t think the Sox should mess with a good thing by moving Morales, who seems to be emerging into a better pitcher as the games go by. One issue he does need to correct is his seeming inability to pitch well at Fenway.
Andrew Miller: Miller had a great year, make no mistake, but he also barely pitched as he was used as a situational left-hander. I wonder if the Sox would be better off trading Miller and going with a Breslow/Morales tandem, or at the very least, trading Miller because he’s there as a trade asset, then bringing Hill back as the LOOGY. Miller is arbitration eligible for the first time and already has a deal that pays him just over a million, so he’s going to get pretty expensive fast for a LOOGY, all the more reason to include him in a deal. I don’t expect Miller back, but mostly because Boston can dangle him as a trade asset without missing him too much thanks to the presence of Breslow, Morales and the likely return of Hill.
Rich Hill: Sure, Hill could always sign as a free agent with another team, but it figures to be pretty easy to resign the Milton native. He won’t break the bank, especially given he hasn’t shown the ability to stay healthy, and can provide situational innings at a low cost. The Red Sox need trade assets wherever they can find him, and most ideally without razing the farm, something I’m fairly certain Ben Cherington won’t do, which means most trade assets come from the major-league level. That’s why I’m so convinced that Miller will at the very least be dangled in trades, freeing up space for Hill to return.
Alfredo Aceves: It seems to be accepted among all that Aceves will be non-tendered this year. On one hand, it’s the obvious move given his disgusting displays of petulance this season. Aceves literally bit the hand that fed him, rejecting Valentine’s trust in him as a closer by showing him up once he rightfully lost that job. On the other hand, Aceves’ 2011 wasn’t a fluke and he’s still shown this year that he can be a quality reliever. I find it hard to believe that the Sox would simply non-tender him and let him walk for nothing, especially when he provides depth in the rotation and bullpen, plus having one final option left. If I was Cherington, I would hang onto him and move him in a deal. If that doesn’t happen, he can either win a job in the bullpen or head to Pawtucket without much say in the matter. But simply getting rid of the headache might end up seeing a non-tender.
Clay Mortensen: Mortensen will be out of options after the year, so he also has to be considered a favorite for a bullpen spot. If we assume that Miller, Aceves and Atchison are moved, there’s one final spot in the bullpen left and Mortensen would certainly grab it. I was extremely skeptical about the acquisition of Mortensen for Marco Scutaro, but kudos to Cherington as it’s paid off. I’m still a bit skeptical, and xFIP is as well, marking him as a 4.00-ERA reliever as opposed to 2.93. But at this point, you’re talking about a replaceable long reliever, so it’s hard to really get worked up about a spot that is so interchangeable in the bullpen. He would also absolutely have to be considered trade bait.
Vicente Padilla: Padilla was a surprise for Boston and ended up being worth the investment. He doesn’t knock your socks off, but ate some quality innings and could theoretically be asked back. The problem is that I just don’t see the space for Padilla given all the names that are vying for spots and can’t simply be sent off to Triple-A. It may be a one-and-done season for Padilla, but it may be worth investigating bringing him back. He seems to have a bulldog mentality that won’t back down from anyone and however you feel about his head-hunting reputation (which may or may not still be deserved), that kind of attitude, especially compared to his peers, was very welcome this year. Don’t forget he was one of the very few to show up to Johnny Pesky’s memorial, too.
Chris Carpenter, Pedro Beato, Zach Stewart: You can expect to see all three on the Pawtucket-Boston shuttle this year. All three relievers have at least one option remaining, and it’s difficult to see them winning spots in the bullpen with all the talent ahead of them — and we haven’t even accounted for any trade or free-agent influxes of relievers. These guys all have potential to emerge into quality middle relievers, but for now they still have some work ahead of themselves to become that guy.