DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The one thing that could sink the Red Sox this season is their bullpen -- if they can't find a closer or if their relief is inconsistent and/or inept. That would be unsettling for a team whose payroll is north of $150 million. They have a very good lineup and a good starting rotation, but with the Ides of March approaching, there is no closer.
The Sox have been scouting extensively in Florida and Arizona in hopes of discovering that middle reliever/set-up man they project as a closer. There's always Washington's Chad Cordero, who could be had for a list of prospects, but some of his heart-attack saves concern them; that could be disruptive on a team that just needs someone to be stable.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland wasn't talking about anyone in particular when he said about bullpens, "That's how you win. If you want to lose, have a bad bullpen. If you don't have someone to close games, you won't have a good time."
Leave it to Leyland to simplify it. What's worse than your offense building a lead, your starting pitcher throwing seven good innings, and your bullpen throwing it all away?
Nobody with the Red Sox is going to come out and say they're concerned. But there has to be some angst.
Mike Timlin, who might have been the chosen one -- and still might be the closer when he returns from a strained oblique -- has the most experience and the mentality to close. Timlin has one more day in shut-down mode following a recurrence of his injury last week. Tomorrow, he's expected to resume his throwing program.
Earlier in his career, there was thought that Timlin was better suited to be a set-up man, but now he seems to have figured it out. Still, is closing too much for him to handle at age 40?
Pitching coach John Farrell still believes there's a four-man competition among Timlin, Brendan Donnelly, Julian Tavarez, and Joel Pineiro. General managers and scouts outside the team who were polled feel Tavarez has the best shot because of his rubber arm and his knowledge of the league, but Farrell is being much more mysterious.
"Nothing has changed in our internal conversations or what's taken place on the field to lead us to a clear-cut emergence of that guy that we're going to open up the season with," Farrell said. "We would hope in the last 10 days of camp there would be some separation with performance on the field and then we have to factor in who handles the blown save the best."
Tavarez is at his best when he's given a role in which he feels important. He thrived as a starter last season. The one thing Tavarez asked the Red Sox in the offseason was to give him a role and allow him to stick to it. That has not happened as yet.
There will likely be seven relievers on the 12-man staff. Timlin will be one if he's healthy. Joining him will be Tavarez, Pineiro, J.C. Romero, Hideki Okajima, and Donnelly. The seventh could come from among Kyle Snyder, who is out of options (and a player the Sox don't want to lose); Devern Hansack, who is being given every opportunity to make the team; and youngsters Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen.
Here's how Farrell sees some of the candidates:
Romero (five scoreless appearances): "He has thrown the ball very well. His fastball command, I don't want to say is surprisingly consistent, but solid, and I think he's regained some of the form that he had when he was with the Twins. Pretty effective both left-on-left, and he has a changeup that he can get righthanders on so he's strictly not just a situational guy. He's thrown the ball real well the last three outings."
Tavarez (five appearances, 3.52 ERA, 6 hits in 7 2/3 innings): "Julian is going to be able to give us some length."
Donnelly (six appearances, 7.94 ERA, 7 hits in 5 2/3 innings): "I think Donnelly is a solid guy in that seventh or eighth inning."
Pineiro (five appearances, 5.68 ERA, 9 hits in 6 1/3 innings): "His last two or three outings, we've seen the velocity creep up a little bit and he's maintained his arm slot, where early in camp there was still some variation with the adjustments in his arm slot. What his ultimate role is, I don't think we've determined that, but he's clearly in that mix."
Runelvys Hernandez (four appearances, 18.69 ERA, 10 hits in 4 1/3 innings): "He hasn't been repeating his delivery as consistently as he needs to. He's gotten ahead in counts but there's been a mistake or two where he hasn't been able to put a hitter away and clearly that's where the inconsistencies lie. But given his track record and given his experience at the big league level, yes, there is still some intrigue there."
Hansack (three appearances, 3.86 ERA, 5 hits in 4 2/3 innings): "The one thing that was encouraging with his two innings with the Twins [last week] was that there was a situation where he could have become unraveled, yet he regrouped after walking [Joe] Mauer and got a ground-ball double play, so we're finding out about him in those situations."
Hansen (two innings, two earned runs): "Really stepped up [against the Yankees Monday] even though it was only his second outing. He's made some adjustments in the bullpen and he's starting to carry those into the game, and it's just encouraging to see both he and Delcarmen have quality stuff. They have power in their arms and they're starting to repeat it and execute effectively. We're starting to see the power slider that he was drafted with."
Farrell said that moving from the third base side of the rubber to the first base side has really improved the depth of Hansen's slider. The Sox drafted him with the notion that he would be their closer at some point, but this winter they really felt he needed to go down to Triple A and pitch every day just to gain experience. It hasn't helped that he was sidelined with a back injury until last week.
The angst has not turned into desperation. What the Sox don't want is to face a decision to remove Jonathan Papelbon from the rotation and insert him back in the closer role. Papelbon doesn't want that, either. But if there's comfort in an uncomfortable situation at the moment, it is that they have that last bullet.