One of Theo Epstein's primary tasks this offseason has been rebuilding the Red Sox beleaguered bullpen, which had one lone bright spot in 2006.
Jonathan Papelbon was flat out brilliant last year. Possessing a bulldog mentality, the young righty was absolutely dominating and inspired fear in the hearts of opposing batters until going down with a shoulder displacement at the beginning of September. Papelbon was consistent for most of the season, amassing a Sox rookie record of 35 saves in 41 chances, and a paltry .92 ERA.
But for the Red Sox, the problem was getting to Papelbon. Red Sox starters were lucky to get into the sixth inning in many games, and the assortment of relievers called upon to pitch the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings were unreliable and often unprepared.
To rectify this rather significant problem, the Red Sox recently went out and got a host of middle relievers and set-up men to try to bridge the gap. In short order, the Red Sox acquired lefties Hideki Okajima and JC Romero, plus righties Brendan Donnelly, and Joel Piniero. The Sox even signed former Royals right-hander Runelvys Hernandez to a Triple-A contract. Though he'll be a non-roster player, Hernandez will be invited to Spring Training and given a chance to make the team.
But the Sox most glaring bullpen problem has yet to be addressed. Now that Papelbon will be taking a spot in the rotation, who will assume his role as the closer? The candidates will not only include the host of newcomers, but also the holdovers from last year's squad, including Mike Timlin, Julian Tavarez, Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen. But some quick addition reveals that we're talking about at least eight relievers competing for what will likely amount to just seven spots on the 25-man roster.
Let's assume the Red Sox go with the following position players:
Catchers - Jason Varitek and Doug Mirabelli
Infielders - Alex Cora, Mike Lowell, Julio Lugo, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz
Outfielders - Coco Crisp, Manny Ramirez, JD Drew, Wily Mo Pena, and Eric Hinske
That's 13 players on the 25-man roster. That leaves 12 spots open for pitchers. After last year's injury nightmare, the Sox will likely go with six starters; Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jonathan Papelbon, Tim Wakefield, and Jon Lester. And that doesn't include Matt Clement, who underwent surgery on his rotator cuff and labrum in September and could factor into the mix at some point.
Now perhaps it's too optimistic to assume that Lester will be fully recovered from his recent cancer treatment and strong enough to break camp with the Sox in April. Maybe he'll need some rehab starts in Pawtucket in order to rebuild his arm strength and regain the promising form he displayed in his 7-2 rookie campaign. After all, he'd be just an hour's drive from Fenway if another starter goes down at some point in the season, which is almost a given most years.
So that leaves just seven spots for a large roster of bullpen candidates. Here's a look at the 13 relievers most likely to garner consideration:
On the fence / Hopefuls:
Something's got to give because obviously not everyone can make the team. It's simply a numbers game.
Some pitchers, if due to nothing more than the size of their contracts, will surely make the cut. Timlin, Romero, Piniero, and Donnelly will all earn considerable salaries and won't get paid millions to pitch in the minors. That said, they all have big game experience as well. Donnelly has a 2.87 career ERA and has struck out an impressive 295 batters in 295 innings. Last year, Romero held left-handed batters to a .211 average and permitted just 13 of 44 inherited runners to score. And in 15 appearances as a setup man for the Mariners last year, Piniero held opponents to a .213 average. All four would appear to have a lock on a roster spot. But what about the remaining three spots?
Craig Hansen still appears green and may be sent back to Pawtucket to work on his pitch repertoire and build confidence. At this point he clearly looks to have been promoted far to fast. Though the move was out of necessity, which isn't his fault, it seems to have been very much to his detriment.
The Sox have held out hope for lefty Lenny DiNardo for a couple of years, but perhaps some of the shine has started to wear off after three seasons and a 5.53 ERA. If Okajima and/or Romero stick, DiNardo's out.
Though he was given limited opportunities to prove himself, Javier Lopez gave up just 13 hits and had 11 strike outs in 16 2/3 innings last year. He'll likely be given a chance to compete for the lefty spot out of the pen. The Sox also liked what they saw from Devern Hansack, who threw a complete-game shutout on the season's final day, though there is little else to go by since he made just two appearances, both starts. And Kyle Snyder's looping curve ball impressed management as well, but his 4-5 record and 6.56 ERA left much to be desired. The 6'8" righty had a tendency to start strong and fizzle early, so he may be ideal for middle relief work.
Edgar Martinez has to get a shot eventually, but he may be offered, along with others in this surplus bunch of middle relievers, as part of a package in a trade for a bona fide closer. That's a scenario the Sox are surely pursuing since "closer by committee" didn't work out too well last time. But such a trade may be easier said than done. So far the asking price has been quite steep.
At this point it's safe to say that the Sox bullpen will indeed be mightier than it was last year - at least in terms of middle relief. But without a surefire, dominating closer to go to in the ninth, 2007 could turn out to be just as disappointing as 2005 and 2006. Theo still has important work to do and, in the absence of this sort of closer, can only hope that someone in the current relief core steps up during Spring Training to surprise and thrill us all. After all, Jonathan Papelbon did it last year. But the question is this; can lightning strike twice and, if so, can the Sox capture it in a bottle?
Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.