Wheeler the latest reliever to sign on with the Red Sox

DAN WHEELER One-year, $3 million deal DAN WHEELER
One-year, $3 million deal (File/Steve Nesius/Reuters)
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / December 19, 2010

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Dan Wheeler graduated from Pilgrim High in Warwick, R.I., where most of his family still lives, and grew up a Red Sox fan. So you can imagine how the righthanded reliever felt after securing a one-year deal (with an option) yesterday with the Sox.

“Over the years, deep down, there’s always been a part of me that wanted to play for them,’’ Wheeler said. “They were my team growing up and you just never know in this game how things are going to turn out. But this one turned out very well.

“My family is thrilled. It’s an exciting time for my family and I’m really pleased about that.’’

Wheeler, a free agent who spent the last three-plus seasons with the Rays, will be paid $3 million for 2011, with a vesting option of $3 million for 2012 if he makes at least 65 appearances.

If he makes 75 appearances in 2011, he’ll earn another $250,000.

“We had some talks with Tampa Bay, but in the end this was the best situation for me,’’ Wheeler said. “I’m very impressed with all the moves we’ve been able to make and it’s a team that looks so solid and exciting. Just to be a part of that is exciting for me.’’

Wheeler, 33, who was drafted by Tampa Bay in the 34th round in 1996, also has pitched for the Astros and Mets.

He joins a Sox bullpen that last week added Bobby Jenks, who underwent a physical at Massachusetts General Hospital yesterday after agreeing to a two-year deal worth $12 million. The Sox also recently signed righthander Matt Albers.

If the Sox are unsuccessful in signing a lefthanded reliever, don’t be surprised to see youngster Felix Doubront in that role. But the organization would rather Doubront begin the season at Triple A, continuing his development as a starter. The Sox have made an offer to Brian Fuentes, and also have explored fellow lefthander Ron Mahay.

Wheeler has had very good WHIPs (walks and hits per innings pitched) the last three seasons — 0.995, 0.867, and 1.076.

“He’s a strike thrower,’’ said one National League scout. “He can throw five different pitches. His split was very effective against lefthanded hitters last year and he can throw to righthanders effectively. He’s got a natural cutter. He can get himself in trouble if he’s up in the zone, but he’s not afraid to pound hitters inside. He’s a natural leader who really knows that division. Battle-tested. I’m sure he’ll be a popular kid on that team and in that bullpen.’’

Wheeler made 64 appearances last season, and was always a reliable member of Joe Maddon’s staff. While he was used mostly against righthanded batters (.222 average), lefties hit only .154 against him.

“I’ve been throwing the split for a while now and didn’t get as many chances against lefties, but when I did I thought I bore down and got them out,’’ Wheeler said.

Wheeler is expected to be used in the same middle-relief role with the Sox but said, “I don’t know about that yet. I need to go out there and earn [Terry Francona’s] trust just like I earned Joe Maddon’s. That’s something I need to do right off the bat.’’

Wheeler joins Carl Crawford as former Rays now on the other side of the rivalry.

“The Red Sox are in for a special treat,’’ Wheeler said of Crawford. “This is a special player. I know Red Sox fans have seen him a lot over the years, but when you watch him day in and day out you’re going to see things that will amaze you. For me as a pitcher, I’m telling you, it’s great to see him out there in left field. He’s a highlight film on just about every play.’’

Is Wheeler sad to leave the Rays?

“I wouldn’t say sad, but I loved my years there,’’ he said. “We had a fun, talented team. We had a great year last season and I enjoyed every minute of it.

“But I’m a Red Sox now.’’

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