Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Red Sox Acquisition of Dan Wheeler Should Complete Pen

As difficult as it is to believe, last season Red Sox relievers pitched among the fewest innings in the American League. Even though Sox' starters went deep into games, the bullpen was still overmatched far too often.

So, the Sox' relievers' troubles cannot be blamed on being overworked. The relatively light workload should have been a benefit, and yet it wasn't. That's why Theo Epstein was so determined so rectify those bullpen issues entering this offseason.

In signing former Rays' reliever Dan Wheeler, the reworking of the Sox' bullpen seems to be complete. The Sox operated with caution, only giving Wheeler a one-year deal, not the three-year pact that other set-up men have gotten this offseason.

Though Wheeler ended up with an option that vests in 2012 if he makes 65 appearances next season, the Sox have to be satisfied. If Wheeler is pitching consistently, obviously it will indicate he's having success.

The fact that Wheeler's workload has declined in each of the last three years (70, 69 and 64 appearances) has to be viewed positively. Hopefully, it means he’ll have a fresh arm in 2011.

Wheeler struck out 8.6 batters per nine innings last season, a fantastic rate. And his WHIP was a lowly 1.075. Yet, in the two previous years it was an even better 0.995 and 0.87, which are simply outstanding numbers. That means less than one batter per inning, on average, reached base when Wheeler pitched.

Apparently, the Sox still have an offer out to Brain Fuentes. However, the lefty wants a multi-year deal as a closer.

At present, the Sox have lefties Rich Hill and Andrew Miller on their roster, both of whom will be given an opportunity to earn a spot in the pen.

Regardless, the Sox may do all right against lefties as presently constructed.

Last season, Jenks held lefthanded batters to a .648 OPS; for his career, the number is .617. Bard, meanwhile, ranked second in the American League among all qualifying righthanders by holding lefthanded batters to just a .462 OPS. And during his career, Papelbon has been one of the most consistent relievers in baseball against lefthanders, holding them to a .585 OPS.

Red Sox fans have to feel good about this bullpen going into 2011. On paper, at least, it is a marked improvement over last year's relief squad.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Red Sox Bullpen Being Remade In Rapid Order

The Red Sox may have shored up their bullpen Thursday with the addition of former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks.

Jenks had a career-high 4.44 ERA last season, but he had 27 saves and struck out 61 batters in 52.2 innings, a phenomenal strikeout ratio. Jenks' fastball has been clocked at over 100 mph. That's a serious power pitcher.

Both Jonathan Papelbon and Jenks will be 30 next season. According to Buster Olney, Jenks will be given a chance to compete for the position of closer when Papelbon is eligible for free agency after next season.

The pressure will be on Papelbon with both Jenks and Daniel Bard waiting behind him. The presence of two possible successors may bring out the best in the Sox longtime closer.

Over six seasons with the White Sox, Jenks was 14-18 with a 3.40 ERA and 334 strikeouts in 341.2 innings. He had 173 saves in those six seasons, ranking second in franchise history.

Jenks had back-to-back 40-save seasons for the White Sox in 2006 and 2007, but posted career lows in saves (27), innings (52 2/3) and ERA (4.44) last season.

The upside is that Jenks averaged 10.4 strikeouts per 9 innings in 2010, his highest ratio since his rookie season (11.4).

In rapid succession, the Sox have added old friend Lenny DiNardo, Matt Albers, Rich Hill and Andrew Miller, whom the club traded for last month and then abruptly non-tendered.

DiNardo was with the Red Sox from 2004-06, going 1-3 with a 5.53 ERA in 43 appearances as a reliever and spot starter. The lefty has a 5.36 ERA over six seasons. Given his ERA, it's no wonder the Sox only signed him to a minor league deal. He may never see Fenway again, unless he's sitting in the stands.

The 27-year-old Albers is a bit of a project. The righty was 5-3 with a 4.52 ERA in 62 games for the Orioles in 2010, striking out 49 and walking 34 in 75 2/3 innings. The combination of the poor ERA and the high walk-per-strikeout ratio make Albers a bit of a long shot to make the team out of spring training.

Over parts of the last five seasons in the majors, mostly as a reliever, Albers has a 5.11 ERA. And his career strikeout numbers (5.8 per nine innings) are fairly unimpressive as well.

Albers' strength is his career 1.05 groundball-to-flyball rate, which is roughly 33 percent better than league average. In 2010, that jumped to a 1.33 groundball-to-flyball ratio, the sixth-highest mark in the AL (min. 50 innings).

The Sox also re-signed Milton native Rich Hill, granting him another minor league contact. The 30-year-old veteran has a career 22-20 record and 4.82 ERA in 84 career appearances (70 starts), spanning parts of six major league seasons. The lefty has posted 358 strikeouts in 399.1 innings.

After trading Dustin Richardson for Miller in November, the Sox chose not to offer the 6'7" lefty a contract, making him a free agent. The 25-year-old was rushed to the majors by Florida, making his big league debut just three weeks after being drafted.

Though Miller needed time for more development in the minors, he was out of options. Had the Sox tendered him, it would have mandated an assignment to the big league team. Considering his 5.84 ERA in 79 appearances over parts of five seasons, that was not a given in Boston.

By non-tendering Miller, the Red Sox were able to give him a minor league contract and avoid arbitration, which might have meant a raise on the $1.8 million he made last season with the Marlins.

Miller will get an invitation to big league camp and the opportunity to compete for a spot in the Red Sox' bullpen.

The Sox pen is now composed of righties Papelbon, Bard, Jenks, Scott Atchison, and Tim Wakefield, plus lefties Miller and Felix Dubront. Additionally, righties Hill, Albers, Matt Fox, Michael Bowden and Robert Coello are also in the mix.

Aside from Jenks, the one thing all of the new additions have in common is that they do not have strong track records or histories of great success at the major league level. That's a problem that could come back to haunt the Red Sox next season. And even Jenks has declined in recent years.

The Red Sox bullpen still seems to be one piece away from completion. The club may yet seek a proven lefty specialist, like Brian Fuentes, before they can consider this work in progress to be completed. At this point, the reconstruction of the bullpen still appears to be a work in progress.

However, the addition of all the new faces, plus the absence of Hideki Okajima, Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen, will certainly give the Red Sox pen a very different look next season.

That's a good start. It seems they're almost there.

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.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Jason Varitek Signing Gives Red Sox Flexibility For Bigger Moves

Jason Varitek will be back for his 15th season with the Red Sox in 2011, after agreeing to a one-year, $2 million contract that includes $300,000 in incentives based on playing time.

Varitek got off to a hot start over the first two months of last season, with seven homers and a 1.024 OPS. However, he hit just .163 after that great start and missed substantial time due to a foot injury.

The veteran catcher was on the DL from July 2 through September 6, and was limited to just 39 games. He finished the season batting .232, with seven homers and 16 RBIs.

Despite turning 39 in April, Varitek is still an able back-up and the ideal mentor to 25-year-old Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Simply put, he is the right man for the job.

Clearly Saltalamacchia agrees. After hearing the news, the young catcher texted, "That's great. Thrilled he's coming back.''

Varitek was named Red Sox captain after the 2004 season. He was granted that distinction because of his leadership skills, his unmatched preparation, and the respect that his teammates—and even opposing players—have for him.

Among active catchers, Varitek ranks third in home runs (182), third in walks (593) fourth in RBI (721), fourth in doubles (296), fourth in extra-base hits (491), fourth in runs (632), fourth in total bases (2,126) and sixth in hits (1,258).

Both Varitek and Saltalamacchia are switch-hitters and should create an effective platoon. Varitek's career line against lefties is .279/.359/.471 and Saltalamacchia's career line against righthanders is .273/.343/.422. If they reach those averages in 2011, the Red Sox will get well above league-average production compared to other catchers.

And, by paying Varitek just $2 million and Saltalamacchia just $750,000 next season, the Sox have a lot more money for some combination of Adrian Beltre/Carl Crawford/ Jayson Werth.

The Red Sox will clearly spend money this offseason, as they always do. They just want to spend it wisely and in the areas of greatest need, with an eye on the prospects who may be ready to assume a big league role in the next two, or so, years.

Since John Henry and Co. purchased the club in 2002, the Sox have been number two in payroll expenditures, spending $1.145 billion. That's second only to the Yankees, who have outspent the Red Sox by 46.6 percent, at $1.679 billion (thanks to Peter Abraham over at Boston.com for doing that research).

The Red Sox will no longer be paying Mike Lowell, Victor Martinez and even Julio Lugo in 2011. So they have the resources to re-sign Adrian Beltre and add either Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth, in addition.

Bringing back Jason Varitek at such a team-friendly price, and pairing him with Saltalamacchia—who isn't even arbitration eligible—frees up plenty of resources for the Red Sox to make a much bigger long-term impact for their ball club.

As always, Theo Epstein has his eyes not only on next season, but the next few seasons.