The 2013 Red Sox look to be a fairly mediocre team overall. They’re likely to end up in the tail end of the Wild Card chase mostly because there are two wild cards and you have to be really terrible not to be within striking distance with a month or so left.
Over the next several weeks, I’m going to take a closer look at the various parts of the team and I’m starting with the bullpen because it’s the one part that really has the chance to be a difference maker.
I’m going to assume it’s a seven man ‘pen because that’s just the way things go these days.
- Andrew Bailey is returning from a lost season. He only pitched fifteen and a third innings and didn’t pitch them particularly well, allowing twenty-nine baserunners and twelve runs. Still, the questions about him have always been about his durability and never about his ability. 2013 included, he has allowed just over one baserunner per inning and just under a strikeout an inning. If healthy, he is a quality arm for the end of the bullpen.
- The acquisition of Joel Hanrahan was a bit puzzling. He’s been in short relief for years and generally done well. He averages over a strikeout per inning, and though he has a tendency to walk a few too many, he has generally been a good but not great short reliever.
- Koji Uehara has been an excellent short reliever everywhere he’s been, and there’s no real reason to suspect that will change.
- Junichi Tazawa was utterly brilliant in 2012, allowing less than a baserunner per inning, and striking out more than one per inning while allowing very few walks and homers.
The four of them figure to be the core of the bullpen. It has been suggested that Tazawa has options remaining and thus isn’t a lock to be in the bigs on Opening Day but that would be a travesty. He has the potential to be a dominant short reliever for the Red Sox for the better part of the next decade and his time should start now.
The very fact that there are four of them is encouraging. Whatever downside there is to injury and the simple volatility inherent in bullpen performance, there are four guys who can reasonably be relied upon to get outs in the eighth and ninth. If they’re all healthy and as effective as their track records indicate, the Sox are going to have an absolutely brilliant back of the bullpen with high performance and deep depth.
That suggests a question about the Hanrahan trade. With the Sox already having three good short relievers, why trade for another?
Some take it to mean that the team has soured on Andrew Bailey. He did, after all, only pitch fifteen innings last season. I think that’s silly. It was, after all, just fifteen innings and his reputation for being injury prone preceded him.
Could that reputation for injury have prompted the trade for Hanrahan purely for depth? Perhaps.
I suspect the reality is that the front office knows the overall team is fairly mediocre, and that if one looks at overachieving teams of recent vintage, it seems a surprising number of them had excellent bullpens. An excellent bullpen certainly doesn’t guarantee that a team will exceed their Pythagorean expectation or win an absurd number of close games but it is a trait common to teams that have exceeded the non mathematical projections of the collected punditry.
It should also be noted that there is always a market for short relievers at the trade deadline and if the Sox do fall flat, it is entirely likely that trading away Hanrahan, who will be a free agent at the end of the season, would bring back prospects the Sox value higher than Jerry Sands, Mark Melancon, Stolmy Pimentel, and Ivan DeJesus.
Daniel Bard is a bit of a mystery. A return to form would give the Sox a bullpen to drool over with five guys who can do it on any given night, virtually guaranteeing that at least two of them will be available for every single game. That said, I’m not sure we can really put any reasonable estimate on the likelihood of that return to form.
From a distance, it looked like Bard was simply unable to repeat his delivery a hundred times, leading to fatigue and less than stellar performance. At least, that’s what it looked like early in the season. Bard rather quickly morphed into someone who simply had no confidence in his ability to throw a pitch of any kind with anything resembling accuracy.
The Sox insist there was no injury as such, but Bard has given up thoughts of starting. He’s been reunited with the man who was the pitching coach during his first two, very successful, seasons in the majors. Can he get back there? I just don’t know.
The answer to that question may well be the biggest factor in the composition of the bullpen come opening day.
Without Bard, the rest of the bullpen would seem to be pretty well set:
- Alfredo Aceves had a terrible season as a closer, which was predicted by, well, almost everyone. He’s never been the kind of shut down reliever a team wants in close and late situations. He has been, however, extremely effective as a long reliever/swing man, able to pitch two or three innings multiple times a week and make spot starts with a decent chance to go five decent innings. If there’s no roster crunch, it’s hard to see Aceves not get that role.
- Franklin Morales can also perform in that role and has the added advantage of being lefthanded in a bullpen that so far doesn’t have anyone of that stripe.
- Andrew Miller seems to have finally found a role in which he can be successful. In his seventh year in the majors he finally broke through and managed to be not terrible in 2012. He was death to lefthanded batters, holding them to a .248 on-base percentage, and a .429 OPS.
- Craig Breslow allowed more walks and fewer hits (to lefties) than Miller, leading to a similar (.246) OBP and higher (.597) OPS.
One rather suspects that were Bard to flame out, the bullpen would consist of Bailey, Hanrahan, Uehara, Tazawa, Aceves, Morales, and Breslow. Breslow gets the nod over Miller for two reasons, control (Breslow walked 22 in 261 plate appearances while Miller walked 20 in 169) and effectiveness against right handers. Miller was dismal (.829 OPS in limited duty) while Breslow was quite effective (.683 OPS in 145 PA.)
Miller would no doubt surface somewhere as lefty specialists never die.
The question, then, is Bard. If he is back to his previous stature–and I would suspect that will be clear by the end of Spring Training–it’s impossible to imagine he doesn’t come north with the big club. That would likely send Aceves packing based almost entirely on the benefit of having a second lefty.
And, as always, it’s entirely possible, even probable, that someone will get injured before Opening Day making all speculation moot.