Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Thursday, January 27, 2011

2011 Preview: A Closer Look At The Red Sox Bullpen

For the most part, there will be little drama and little suspense.

The Red Sox will enter spring training with virtual locks at almost every position — except the bullpen.

Beginning just 18 days from now, the battle of the lefty relievers will present the greatest level of competition and intrigue. Currently, the Red Sox have Andrew Miller, Rich Hill, Lenny DiNardo, and Hideki Okajima battling for just one spot.

Though the Sox want lefty Felix Doubront to be a starter and to begin the year in Pawtucket, if no one else steps up, he will be strongly considered for a spot in the pen.

And there is still the possibility of another free agent being added to the mix. The agent for lefty Joe Beimel says the Sox are one of five teams pursuing his client, and that a decision could come as soon as today.

Here's a look at the current crop of lefty candidates for the Red Sox:

The 30-year-old Hill has a devastating curveball, resulting in 358 strikeouts in 399.1 career innings. But he's had trouble locating in the past. Over parts of six major league seasons, including 84 appearances and 70 starts, Hill has a career 22-20 record and a 4.82 ERA.

After spending 2004-2006 with the Red Sox, the 31-year-old DiNardo is back with the team again. The lefty has a 5.36 ERA over six seasons and, consequently, was only granted a minor league deal by the club. Undoubtedly, he is a long shot. However, he does have Major League experience and may find a role in the pen at some point this season.

DiNardo had surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow last August. It remains to be seen how that affects his ability to pitch or his mechanics. DiNardo was with the A's at the time, and Oakland director of player development Keith Lieppman described the lefty as having "a miraculously quick recovery."

The 35-year-old Okajima dealt with a dead arm and back problems throughout last season, his worst in four years with the Red Sox. But it was merely a continuation of a very troubling, longer term trend.

For four consecutive seasons, Okajima's ERA has steadily risen, more than doubling from 2.22 in 2007 to 4.50 last year. Of equal concern, over that same span, the soft-tossing lefty's WHIP has also risen continually, going from 0.97 in 2007, all the way to 1.72 in 2010. Lastly, Okajima's strikeout total has also dropped for three straight seasons.

"Hello, Boston? We have a problem."

The 6'7" Miller possesses a fastball that has been clocked at 100 mph. New pitching coach Curt Young recently worked with Miller at Boston College, which can only be a good thing. Miller has long had trouble with his command, but if that powerful fastball can be harnessed, the Sox may have found a diamond in the rough.

Young is working with Miller on refining his delivery and mechanics, which clearly got out of whack since leaving college. Miller was named Baseball America National Player of the Year, and won the Roger Clemens Award as the nation's top collegiate pitcher, in 2006.

That same year, Miller was the sixth pick in the draft and was rushed to the majors after just three weeks. He was given no time to develop and it showed; Miller posted a 5.84 ERA in 79 appearances over parts of five seasons. However, he is still just 25 years old.

With five years of service time, Miller is out of options. Yet, he accepted a minor league contract with the Red Sox, so he can start the season in the minors, if necessary.

However, once he joins the big league club, he must remain with the team. Miller would first need to pass through waivers before being allowed to go back to the minors.

If Miller doesn't make the team out of spring training, he will likely begin the season as a starter in Pawtucket and continue his development.

There will be plenty of competition for just one spot, and that will be one of the most interesting things to monitor in Fort Meyers when spring training opens on February 15th.

Currently, the bullpen looks like this: Jonathan Papelbon, closer; Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks, setup; Dan Wheeler, Matt Albers, and Scott Atchison, middle; Tim Wakefield, long relief/situational.

That's seven relievers right there, before the Sox have even determined who their lefty is. Given that the club will only break camp with seven relievers, an excess already exists in the reliever core, even before a much-needed lefty wins the final spot.

Something's got to give, and somebody's got to go. The Sox will undoubtedly carry a lefty, which makes it a good bet that either Albers or Atchison won't make the team out of spring training.

As they say, stay tuned...


Anonymous said...

What screams for my attention is not their bullpen but their starting rotation. Three of the five starters (Beckett, Lackey and Dice-K) are toss-up's as to whether they'll be better than what was medicre to bad from last season. Pitching wins championships. I don't see it in their current starting rotation unless something miraculous happens!

-Jim Duggan

Sean M. Kennedy said...

Jim, as I noted in a previous post, 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.

Sean M. Kennedy said...

That said, I fully agree that the Red Sox need big bounce back years from all three of those pitchers if they are to achieve their goal of a World Series Championship. It's a tall order.