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Do Red Sox have Plan B for bullpen?

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  March 21, 2012 10:24 AM

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What Bobby Valentine surely knows, as does most any manager, is that he is only as good as his bullpen. In the modern major leagues, after all, a manager's in-game skill is most important in the late innings, where games, pennants and championships are often won and lost.

Based on his past and reputation, Bobby Valentine has the skill.

The question this year is whether he has the horses.

And so roughly two weeks before the Red Sox begin their 2012 season, for all of the talk about the starting pitching and clubhouse antics, relatively little has been said about a Red Sox bullpen that has undergone more significant changes than any other area of the team. Jonathan Papelbon is gone and Daniel Bard seems destined for the rotation. Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey now serve as the final legs in what Valentine hopes will be a relatively smooth relay race.

Earlier this week, Valentine indicated the Red Sox have reached that stage of camp where roles must be refined, decisions made. Where the Red Sox begin is very different from where they end, of course, but the departure of Papelbon alone introduces questions the Sox have not had in some time.

Specifically: how long do they wait to make a change if things go awry?

And what is Plan B?

Here's what we know (or what we believe we know): barring an unexpected change, Bard will be in the rotation, if for no other reason than the fact that the Red Sox need the innings. That leaves the last two innings to Messrs. Melancon and Bailey, each of whom is fully capable of success. We all know that a strong start is imperative for the Sox in the wake of last September's epic, historic collapse, but nowhere is that truer than in the back end of a bullpen that has been completely revamped.

How's that for irony? Neither Melancon nor Bailey had anything to do with what happened here last September. But if those two men are not on their games to start the season, either could easily undermine the success of the team, particularly in the early going.

This year, more than any other in recent memory, the Sox need a strong start. Purely for the sakes of morale and fan support, they have to play well early. (As a result, many of us believe they will.) But anyone who remembers the Red Sox of 2002, 2003, or 2005 knows that nothing can undermine a club's confidence (and season) like an unreliable relief corps - and the Red Sox of early 2012 absolutely, positively do not need to be blowing games in the late innings during April.

That is why there is seemingly no chance of Bard and Alfredo Aceves both being in the Boston bullpen despite the fact that Boston's best five-man rotation would include both. The Red Sox need at least one of them in the bullpen to support Melancon and Bailey to start the year, and it could even be that one supplants Melancon as the primary set-up man in the eighth inning.

The real problem comes if the Red Sox end up needing both of them in the bullpen.

Or if Bailey, who will almost certainly be the closer to start, explodes in a ball of fire.

That last scenario, in particular, poses an interesting scenario, if for no other reason than that the Red Sox have not really had any kind of closer controversy since the start of the 2006 season. Even then, Terry Francona pulled the plug quickly on Keith Foulke and put the ball in the hands of Papelbon, who never so much as teetered. The first time Papelbon ever really encountered any serious problems as closer came in 2010, by which point Bard had emerged as a dominating setup man and a seeming succession plan was in place.

Even then, Papelbon never really seemed at risk of losing the job.

But now? Stability in the bullpen is a huge question, even if solely for the fact that everything is new. New closer. New setup man. New pitching coach and manager. Will Valentine and Bob McClure be as patient and methodical as Francona and, say, John Farrell were? Do they have any reason to be? Francona trusted Papelbon implicitly because he won with him, and Valentine simply does not have that kind of history or track record with anybody on this Boston team, let alone two relievers who have yet to play their first games with the club.

Should Bailey or Melancon struggle early, Valentine will immediately be faced with an important decision, particularly if Bard also is slow out of the gate (as a starter). Would the Red Sox then be better served to put Bard back in the bullpen, even if for the eighth inning? Would Valentine even consider closing with him? And if the Red Sox always believed that Bard was the closer-in-waiting behind Papelbon - something very debatable to some of us more than others - then why did they acquire Bobby Jenks before last season and make Bard a starter before this one?

In baseball, as in any sport, no statistic is absolute. For every rule, there is an exception. But generally speaking in this day and age, teams that rack up bullpen losses almost never, ever succeed. Think about it. A bullpen loss means that a team was either winning or tied entering the late innings, and the best teams simply do not give away games at the most critical times.

In 2004, when the Red Sox won the World Series, their bullpen finished with just 17 losses, fifth-fewest in baseball, fourth-fewest in the American League. (The latter is a better indicator because the absence of a designated hitter inevitably leads to more relief appearances in the NL as a result of hitting for the pitcher.) In 2007, Sox relievers had the third-fewest losses in baseball, second-fewest in the AL. The Sox of the last two years have dipped into the middle of the pack in that area - and they have not made the playoffs in either season.

And so this year, perhaps unsurprisingly, the back of the bullpen is entirely new.

Now the Sox just have to make sure they change the results, too.

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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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