Even Theo Epstein might call this an "uberteam," if for no other reason than the Red Sox seem to be loading up everywhere. A deep rotation and a revamped lineup now have astonishing power in the back end of the bullpen, though the acquisition of Bobby Jenks also raises some interesting questions.
How short is the leash on which Jonathan Papelbon now lives?
And if Papelbon fails, will Jenks get the chance to replace him before Daniel Bard?
In 2011, as much as or more than any other year in recent team history, the Red Sox have options. On paper, the Sox look like a wagon. The addition of Jenks yesterday seems to address the one major remaining need in the Boston bullpen, another reliable power arm to join Bard and Papelbon in what could be, if all goes according to plan, a reincarnation of the Nasty Boys.
No lefty? No major problem, at least on paper. Last season, Jenks held lefthanded batters to a .648 OPS; for his career, the number is .617. Bard, meanwhile, ranked second in the American League among all qualifying righthanders by holding lefthanded batters to just a .462 OPS – an enormous improvement over 2009, when the number (.866) was nearly double that – further emphasizing how the Red Sox place an emphasis on right-handed relievers who can retire both right-handers and lefthanders when building a bullpen.
All of this brings us to Papelbon, who during his career has been one of the most consistent relievers in baseball against both righthanders (.572 OPS) and lefthanders (.585). Only last year did the number (.717) start to grow to more worrisome levels. That upturn suggests inconsistency with Papelbon’s split-fingered pitch (which we knew) and an inability to get his fastball in on lefthanded batters – often, that can pitch can tail back out over the middle of the plate on him – helping to explain why lefties batted a decent .250 against Papelbon last year.
Now, if Papelbon goes poof, the Red Sox can turn to Jenks. Or to Bard. And the direction they choose will tell us a great deal more about how they view Bard, whom most of us regarded as the heir apparent to Papelbon’s throne.
More so than ever before, we can now presume that the 2011 season will be Papelbon’s final year in Boston. With Papelbon once again eligible for arbitration – and, thus, a salary of, say, $11-$12 million – the Red Sox are now all but certain to cut him loose no later than November of next year. The question is why the Sox felt the need to get another closer (rather than a true set-up man) now instead of next fall, when there will as many options on that market (Heath Bell, Jonathan Broxton, Jose Valverde and others) as there have been on this one.
The probable explanations? Because the Sox have a great deal invested in this season (now roughly $175 million – and counting) and because they are worried that, even in a free agent year, Papelbon is getting worse, not better. Because they still have doubts about whether Bard has the necessary makeup to handle the ninth. Because they needed another dominating arm, anyway, and three potential closers are better than two potential closers and a good set-up man.
Whatever the factors, there are suddenly a lot of moving parts in the back end of a bullpen that has been a strength for the Sox for the better part of the Epstein era.
Last season, Red Sox relievers pitched among the fewest innings in the American League, making their bullpen issues an even greater concern entering this offseason. A lighter workload should have made them better, not worse. But because manager Terry Francona had fewer options at his disposal, Bard’s workload increased disproportionately. Jenks will provide the Sox with much needed depth to go along with power, and his versatility should allow the Sox to groom Felix Doubront, Andrew Miller, or any other lefthanders the Sox invite to their community auditions.
(As an aside, how the Sox perform against lefties – offensively and defensively, so to speak – may well determine their degree of success. The Sox generally will be counting on lefty batters to hit lefthanded pitching and, by contrast, righthanded pitchers to defuse lefthanded lineups like that of the Yankees. Josh Beckett and John Lackey will be chief among that latter group, too.)
However things shake out in the bullpen this year, Bard and Jenks now are under team control through at least 2012. Papelbon is not. Epstein has reconfigured the nucleus of the team on multiple levels over the last two offseasons, all while moving up in the first round of the draft and during an offseason in which the Yankees were effectively shut out.
In 2011, Theo, it sure looks like you’re going to have an uberteam.
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