Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Despite Major Offseason Moves, Red Sox Toughest Task Is Rebuilding Bullpen

After the way that the Red Sox' season unceremoniously ended, it was a safe bet that management felt determined to improve the team this offseason.

For just the second time since 2002 (aka the John Henry era), the Red Sox failed to win at least 90 games.

As a result, for just the second time in 13 seasons, the Red Sox did not finish in first or second place in the American League East. Playing in a city that now has much greater expectations (as a result of two World Series Championships in the last decade), that simply wouldn't suffice.

So, this offseason was sure to be a time of big, critical decisions for the Red Sox front office.

The team seemed poised to lose a couple of their better hitters in Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez, leaving the prospect that Theo Epstein and Co. might have to rebuild the offense.

Though the Red Sox scored 818 runs in 2010, which was good enough for second in the AL, it was the fewest runs they'd scored since 2001.

But beyond that, some of the Red Sox' hard-earned luster seemed to have been lost in 2010.

For the first time in eight years, the Red Sox didn't lead the majors in local TV ratings. According to FoxSports.com, the Sox finished tied for fifth, behind the Cardinals, Twins, Phillies, Reds and tied with the Rays.

The Sox' ratings on NESN fell 36.6 percent from '09 to '10. Only one team, the Cubs, had a larger percentage dropoff on local cable. The Cubs, though, had a less severe decline than the Sox in their 70 over-the-air network games.

All of those problems were likely solved in a remarkable 72-hour period when the Red Sox traded for 28-year-old first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, and then signed 29-year-old free agent left fielder Carl Crawford.

The newly constructed Red Sox will be an offensive juggernaut, capable of producing runs in abundance. They now have a couple of guys (Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury) that can score from first. And if Josh Beckett and John Lackey bounce back to form, the Red Sox are now the odds on favorite to win the AL Pennant.

Over seven seasons with the Rangers and Padres, Gonzalez hit .284 and averaged 32 home runs and 99 RBI. He is a three-time All-Star who, in five full-time seasons with San Diego, has 161 homers and 501 RBIs.

Simply put, Gonzalez is one of very best hitters in the game, with a left-handed swing that seems tailor-made for Fenway. Given the combination of the shallower right field fence next season, plus his ability to hit the other way, Gonzalez should absolutely rake in Boston. Additionally, Gonzalez is a two-time Gold Glove winner.

Crawford is a four-time All-Star who brings an intriguing combination of speed, power, and Gold Glove defense. He is one of only two players in Major League history (Rogers Hornsby) to raise his average and home run totals in five consecutive seasons (2002-2006).

The left fielder hit .307 with 19 home runs, 90 RBIs, 13 triples, and 47 stolen bases last season and is the youngest player in history to amass 100 homers, 400 steals, and 100 triples. The 2010 season was a career-year for Crawford, and he is just now entering his prime.

With two bold moves, the Red Sox simultaneously got younger and better defensively. And they—presumably—now have both players secured for the long term.

Theo Epstein summed up the Red Sox offseason additions succinctly: “Adding players the caliber of Gonzalez and Crawford, who are 28 and 29 years old, respectively, and having them through their prime years makes a ton of sense for us. We’re not going to apologize for it.’’

But offense was not the Red Sox problem in 2010. The team lost substantial portions of its lineup (Victor Martinez, Jason Varitek, Kevn Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Mike Cameron) for long stretches of the season and still managed to win 89 games.

More than anything else, the Red Sox' bullpen was their key weakness last season. The team lost far too many games in the late innings due to bullpen implosions.

The Red Sox were 22-26 in games decided by one run, and 6-12 in extra inning games. If not for the pen, the Sox' season might have been very different.

The Sox finished 12th out of 14 AL teams in relief ERA, at 4.24. Only the Orioles and Royals had higher relief ERAs. The Sox were next-to-last in blown saves, with 22. And they also were 13th in save percentage, at 67 percent.

It's worth noting that the top four teams in relief ERA (Rays - 3.33; Rangers - 3.38; Yankees - 3.47; and Twins - 3.49) all made the playoffs.

The bullpen is an area that the Red Sox need to rebuild on an almost annual basis, which says a lot about the inconsistency of relief pitchers in general. Middle relievers are the worst of the lot; they are neither good enough to start, nor good enough to close.

The majority of relievers are journeymen who lack consistency from month-to-month, much less year-to-year. But without a solid, reliable bullpen, no team makes it to the playoffs, much less the World Series.

That is the reality facing Theo Epstein and his minions.

The Red Sox currently have Jonathan Papelbon as their closer, who had 7 losses and 8 blown saves last season, both career highs. Papelbon's 8 blown saves lead the AL and his 3.90 ERA more than doubled from 2009.

Papelbon's primary set-up man will once again be Daniel Bard, and Tim Wakefield projects to be the long-reliever and occasional spot-starter. The Red Sox need a lefty out of the pen and, at this point, young Felix Dubront may assume that role.

That leaves three open spots, assuming the Sox go with a 12-man staff again. Look for two of those spots to be filled by trade or free agency and the final opening to be won in a battle among assorted journeymen and in-house candidates, such as Scott Atchison, Michael Bowden, Robert Coello, Matt Fox, Rich Hill, and the newly acquired Matt Albers.

The Red Sox also are at least pondering bringing back lefty Hideki Okajima, plus lefty Andrew Miller and righty Taylor Buchholz, the later two of whom the Sox recently acquired and then curiously chose to non-tender.

The Red Sox have feelers, and in some case offers, out to a number of lefties, such as Brian Fuentes, Ron Mahay, Arthur Rhodes, and Pedro Feliciano.

Though Scott Downs, Joaquin Benoit and Matt Guerrier recently signed three-year deals with the Angels, Tigers and Dodgers respectively, it is unlikely that the Red Sox will go to that length with any reliever—unless he is one of the best in the game. But those types tend to be closers, and the Sox are set in that department through 2011.

As GM, Theo Epstein has given only one three-year deal to a reliever — closer Keith Foulke, following the 2003 season. Foulke had one very good season, in which he helped the Sox win the 2004 World Series. However, in 2005 and 2006 Foulke missed substantial time due to injuries, performed poorly, and ultimately lost his job to Papelbon.

However, the Sox have signed relievers to two-year deals that included vesting options. Both Alan Embree and Julian Tavarez were signed to such deals. Embree made enough appearances for his option to vest. Tavarez did not, but he had his option picked up after emerging as a valuable swingman in 2006 and 2007. Yet, both pitchers ended up being designated for assignment in the third year of their deals.

So it's easy to understand Epstein's reluctance to get involved in long-term deals with relief pitchers that are inherently unreliable. There's a reason these guys float from team to team, year after year. They often provide little relief and lots of headaches.

Ultimately, building a consistent, dependable bullpen may prove to be Theo Epstein's greatest offseason task, despite his rather bold and splashy moves to this point.

Injuries aside, the pen was the Sox' Achilles Heel in 2010, and they can't let this deep roster, loaded with talent, go to waste with a bullpen that once again melts down under pressure, like it did last year.

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