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Sigh of relief for Sox

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  February 19, 2009 02:22 PM

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- From his days in the minor leagues to his days in the majors, Grady Little went through the same routine every year. Little would head out the door for the start of spring training, and his wife would assess her husband's chances based on his answer to one question.

How does your bullpen look?

Clearly, Debi Little is a smart woman.

No segment of a team can stabilize -- or undermine -- a season quite like the men who serve as baseball's version of paratroopers. The relievers are the unit within the unit, all but dropped into the middle of a hairy situation as if pushed from a plane. Special skills are not an asset as much as a requirement. And the Sox seem to have assembled as skilled a bullpen group as any in the majors.

"Every reliever here has an established major league track record,'' Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said today as the team continued spring training workouts. "I also think that it's a diverse bullpen in that you have different arm angles and we have the ability to match lefthanders and righthanders. And with the addition of [Takashi] Saito and [Ramon] Ramirez, it adds to our strikeout ability as a group.''

This morning, on the sun-baked fields of their minor league complex, the Red Sox took another step in their spring training program when pitchers began throwing live batting practice. The drill is designed to begin simulating game conditions. Today's group of pitchers included most every reliever in camp, from Saito and Ramirez to Hideki Okajima and Manny Delcarmen, and there really is no need to evaluate the performance of each.

What is important, after all, is what the relievers could accomplish come the start of the regular season, only reinforcing the long-held belief that health is the priority.

Said Sox manager Terry Francona when asked for any preliminary evaluation of his relief corps, "There were no red flags that came up for anybody."

That brings us to Saito, the 39-year-old reliever whose major league resume is positively eye-popping. In 180 career appearances over 189 1/3 innings, Saito has a mere 52 walks against 245 strikeouts, an average of 11.6 whiffs per nine innings. His ERA is 1.95. Saito's health is of major concern given past problems to his forearm area and elbow, but what he could give the Red Sox is … well, let's allow Jason Bay to explain.

"One of the nastiest pitchers in the league,'' said Bay, who faced Saito in the National League and who stood in against him today. "And I can't be the first guy that's said that.''

He isn't.

As for Ramirez, he had a 2.64 ERA for the Kansas City Royals last season before being acquired in a trade for Coco Crisp. Thus far, for an assortment of reasons, he has led an anonymous existence in camp. Ramirez is built a little like former Sox pitcher Tom Gordon, and he possesses the kind of stuff that could make him an invaluable setup man to closer Jonathan Papelbon in the late innings.

Last season, Ramirez held righthanded batters to a .153 average while lefties hit a robust .300 against him. But if he can learn to control the inner edge of the plate against lefties -- and he has the stuff to do it -- the Red Sox could be looking at a succession of power arms that would make them quite stingy in the late innings.

And we haven't even begun to talk about Justin Masterson, Okajima, Delcarmen, Javier Lopez and Papelbon, a group that stabilized and performed well after Masterson joined the bullpen on July 23.

What this means for Francona is that he could have countless options at his disposal late in games thanks to the depth and array of skills housed in his bullpen. Part of the reason the Sox could gamble on Saito, for example, is because their bullpen depth should lessen the need for innings from him during the course of the season. (In his case, less could produce more.) The Sox also can afford to absorb Ramirez's current ineffectiveness against lefthanded batters because Papelbon, Saito, Delcarmen, Okajima, and Lopez all have had success against lefties, which means Francona can play matchups, if he chooses, at virtually any stage of the game.

A long man? The Red Sox don't really believe in it. Because the team has had such confidence in its offense in recent years, Francona believed the Sox could overcome most any deficit. As such, he has never been fond of having a long specialist or mop-up man purely for the purpose of saving arms. If things get dire enough, the Red Sox always can summon a temporary call-up from the minors; if they don't, Francona now can trot out so many capable relievers that the Red Sox could silence opponents for the balance of any game.

At least in theory.

In recent big league history, a capable bullpen is critical to success. While a good relief corps does not guarantee success, a bad bullpen all but eliminates any chance of at success. What general manager Theo Epstein has done in 2009 in to stockpile arms for every inning after the fifth, which should allow the Sox to match up with any relief corps in the game.

And so, to answer your question, Mrs. Little:

At the moment, the bullpen looks very, very good.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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