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Red Sox are anything but penned in

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  March 8, 2011 07:48 AM

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Citing safety of all things, the Red Sox explored the idea of expanding the bullpens at Fenway Park this winter. The plan has been at least temporarily scrapped. Meanwhile, general manager Theo Epstein has brought in enough candidates for his relief corps to fill Symphony Hall.

In spring training, at least, the Red Sox bullpen is overflowing.

And how the Red Sox solve their population problem may have less to do with performance than it does with roster manipulation.

What we know at the moment - or at least what we think we know - is that the Red Sox have 5 of 7 spots committed to a host of relievers that includes Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard, Bobby Jenks, Dan Wheeler and Tim Wakefield. Two spots remain. Between now and Opening Day, the Red Sox pluck from a group that essentially includes eight names, ranging from the young (Felix Doubront) to the old (Dennys Reyes).

In between rest a host of others, including lefthanders Rich Hill, Hideki Okajima and Andrew Miller as well as righthanders Matt Albers, Alfredo Aceves and Scott Atchison.

So which way will the Red Sox go to start the year?

Logic suggests they will err on the side of depth.

But allow us to explain.

Instinctively, those of us on the outside would argue that jobs always should go to the most qualified. But in baseball, as in life, there is a great deal more to consider. Given the length of the season and the need to endure injuries and mishaps, quantity takes precedent over quality, particularly when identifying the final two spots on the pitching staff. As such, the Red Sox will likely make decisions based on whom they can control as much as on whom they can rely.

For example: though signed to a minor-league contract, the soon-to-be 34-year-old Reyes has a clause in his contract that would allow him to elect free agency if he is not with the club on Opening Day. That simple fact almost certainly tips the scales in Reyes's favor on any roster decisions, at least barring a spring so disastrous that the Red Sox can cut him without any reservations.

On the face of it, that scenario seems unlikely. As Tony Fossas long ago taught us, aging lefthanders never die. They just go pitch somewhere else.

As such, here are a handful of questions (and answers) that you should know with regard to the final two spots in the Red Sox bullpen:

Given that the first five spots are filled by righthanders, is a lefthander necessary?

The last time we checked, there was no legislation requiring a team to have at least one lefty in the bullpen. But if the past has been any indication, the Red Sox would like at least one and maybe even two.

At a minimum, Reyes would fill the need. Manager Terry Francona is playing things straight thus far, indicating that he wants the best relievers, whether they are righthanded or lefthanded. Nonetheless, you can all but bet your house that the Red Sox will leave camp with at least one lefty in the bullpen. When effective, Boston's three best righthanders (Papelbon, Jenks and Bard) can retire lefthanded batters, and it's unlikely Francona would bypass one of those options in the late innings of a game for someone like, say, Andrew Miller.

So why do the Red Sox need a lefty specialist at all? Because even with a powerful back end, Francona still may choose to match up early in games, something he has done in the past with a lineup as potentially potent as this one. If the Sox fall behind early and there are men on base, don't be surprised to see someone like Reyes come in and get one out in the fourth inning. Stifling such a rally would give the Red Sox a chance to come back and win, something the Sox did with regularity at the offensive height of the Theo Epstein era.

Of the remaining lefties, who has the best chance of making the team?

That's hard to say. They all give the Sox some roster flexibility (or have issues) that would inspire the Sox to stash them in the minors.

In the case of Hill, he is signed to a minor-league contract and could simply be assigned to camp without being exposed to waivers. In the case of Okajima, the Sox hold a contract option that would allow them to start him at Pawtucket (despite a guaranteed $1.75 million salary) without exposing him to waivers. The one potential wrinkle comes with the raw and gifted Miller, who must be exposed to waivers to be sent to the minors.

In a perfect world, Miller would open the season in Pawtucket to work through ongoing command issues. (He has averaged 5.3 walks per nine innings in his career and Averaged a whopping 7.2 last season.) Any team claiming Miller would have to guarantee him a 2012 of $3 million salary under the terms of his agreement with the Red Sox, which means the Sox long ago viewed him as a project and are trying to deter teams from plucking him.

As for Doubront, he also has options remaining and can be sent to the minors without being exposed. In his case, the Sox also have other factors to consider, which brings us, to the following question.

Independent of any left-right issues, what other variables affect the decision-making process?

Simply put, the depth of starting pitching in the organization.

Or, rather, the lack of it.

As things stand, the Red Sox stand to open the season with a starting five of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Wakefield projects as a sixth-man insurance policy. But after that, the Sox are decidedly thin in this area, which is why some of the relief candidates are being eyed as starters.

For the moment, at least, Doubront is in this group. So is Aceves, the righthander whom the Red Sox signed late in the offseason. The Red Sox need those pitchers to start, and they can send both to the minors without exposing them to waivers.

As the year goes on, keep an eye on this situation because it bears watching and could be a potential problem area if the Red Sox have any injuries. Junichi Tazawa is coming off elbow surgery and Michael Bowden has all but fallen off the map, but if the Red Sox can get either on track by the middle of the season, it will alleviate some of the need for starting depth and allow Aceves, Doubront and others to come up and fortify the bullpen.

What about the remaining righthanders? What kind of flexibility do the Sox have there?

Aside from Aceves, the other remaining candidates are Albers and Atchison, the latter of whom served the Sox well last year and even started a game. Francona, in particular, likes Atchison's versatility and attitude, and the 2010 season proved that he can be a serviceable major league pitcher. However, Atchison has options remaining, meaning that he, too, could be protected without being exposed to waivers.

All of that brings us to Albers, whom the Sox have signed to a one-year contract worth $875,000. Because Albers is out of options, he must clear waivers in order to be sent to the minors. Another team would almost certainly claim him if exposed, though that would rid the Sox of any financial obligation. Still, for a team with a $180 million payroll, Albers's $875,000 qualifies as a paltry sum.

The bottom line? If the Sox are interested in protecting as many bodies as possible, Albers will break with the team. If not, they will either try to trade him or assign him to Triple-A. Some of that may depend not solely on the performance of all relievers in camp, but also on their health.

In the final two spots of any bullpen, after all, quantity can be just as important as quality.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

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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