TAMPA, Fla. -- In between the beginning and the end, the question seems obvious: Exactly how do the Red Sox intend to work things in the middle?
Opening Day 2009 is now less than a week away, and Red Sox manager Terry Francona continues to say the same thing: He is not quite sure how his bullpen will shake out. On paper, at least, Francona has a deep starting rotation behind No. 1 starter Josh Beckett and an assembly line of relievers stationed before closer Jonathan Papelbon. Francona isn’t saying who will pitch the eighth inning or even the seventh, and it is likely that the manager is merely playing it coy until he is prepared to announce his intentions.
In the interim, Francona clearly has choices.
Lots of 'em.
Yet, based on a combination of abilities, experience and track record, the Red Sox bullpen seems to fall into three groups, excluding Papelbon, whose role as closer is all but etched in granite. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call these Groups A, B, and C; the higher the letter, the later he is likely to appear in the game.
GROUP A: Takashi Saito, Justin Masterson, Hideki Okajima
In a perfect world, there is no debate here: Saito gets the eighth. The obvious issue concerns the 39-year-old's health in the wake of a forearm/elbow problem that required him to rehabilitate the injury during the offseason. Were it not for that fact, Saito could be closing for most teams in the majors -- his career numbers are remarkably similar to Papelbon's. But for the Red Sox, he could be the primary setup man and serve as closer on those days when Papelbon needs a rest. At this stage of Saito’s career, it is the ideal role for him.
So far this spring, Saito has not pitched in back-to-back games. The surprising thing is that the Red Sox may adhere to this practice during the regular season. Asked about the need to handle Saito delicately, one Sox official said recently: "If we [misuse him], that’s our fault.’’
Given Masterson’s youth and durability -- he can pitch multiple innings and on back-to-back days -- the Red Sox have tremendous flexibility here. Masterson really is the key. The Sox can give Saito the eighth inning on one day, then entrust Masterson and/or Okajima on the next. The bottom line is that Francona has three high-level relievers for the seventh and eighth innings, a number that actually could grow depending on how deep the starter goes.
Last season, beginning on Aug. 1, Masterson had a 1.93 ERA and Okajima held batters to a .155 average. Saito has a career ERA of 1.95.
"We look like we’ll really be able to shorten the game if our bullpen’s healthy all year,’’ third baseman Mike Lowell said following Monday’s game in Kissimmee against the Atlanta Braves. "That’s a big plus for us.’’
Especially when you consider that the Sox still have three other relievers.
GROUP B: Manny Delcarmen
For now, Delcarmen stands alone in this group, stuck in the purgatory between middle relief and set-up. Nonetheless, that has proven to be a comfortable place for him. The closer Delcarmen is to the middle of the game, the better he pitches, which is why the ascension of Masterson late last season had such a profound effect on the bullpen as a whole.
Last year, again beginning on Aug. 1, Delcarmen posted a 1.84 ERA and held opponents to a .158 average with 29 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings. During that span, he most frequently pitched in the sixth or seventh innings. Delcarmen can be effective against both lefthanded and righthanded batters, though he sometimes has command issues (12 walks in his final 29 1/3 innings last year) that make it harder for him to pitch at the end of the game.
In the ideal bullpen, Delcarmen would pitch in the middle of the game. On this team, that’s where Francona will likely use him.
GROUP C: Ramon Ramirez and Javier Lopez
For the moment, at least, these are Francona’s "matchup’’ guys -- Lopez against lefthanded hitters, Ramirez against righties. Depending on the performance of the starter or the situation, Francona could use them at virtually anytime, though most likely before the eighth. Last year, Francona brought in Lopez as early as the third inning, something you are even more likely to see this year given the apparent depth of the bullpen.
Last year, against lefties, Lopez recorded 26 strikeouts in 131 plate appearances against him, meaning he recorded a strikeout roughly 19.8 percent of the time. For comparison’s sake, Josh Beckett recorded a strikeout in 23.7 percent of all plate appearances against him (left or right).
As for Ramirez, the Red Sox believe he can be effective against lefthanded hitters, who batted .300 against him last season. Until that happens, don’t be surprised if Francona picks his spots. Last season, Ramirez held righthanded batters to an absurd .153 average while recording 38 strikeouts in 156 plate appearances, a strikeout rate of 24.4 percent.
On the whole, this bullpen has tremendous strikeout potential from top to bottom. Using last season as a guide -- and looking at Lopez and Ramirez solely in left-right matchups -- the seven projected Opening Day relievers recorded 362 strikeouts in 1,438 plate appearances against them. That number that translates into a strikeout 25.2 percent of the time, meaning Sox relievers recorded roughly a strikeout per inning as a staff.
Based on that, it is no wonder that people like Lowell are so excited about the Boston bullpen.
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