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Relief map

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  July 7, 2010 02:30 PM

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woodkerry.jpgThe year of the pitcher? Tell that to the Red Sox bullpen.

Closer Jonathan Papelbon has been fine, save for a couple of memorable meltdowns and spottier command. Daniel Bard has been sensational. And . . . well, not to say everyone else has been brutal, but in retrospect, Chad Fox doesn't seem like such a bad memory anymore.

We've known it for some time now, though their recent collectively ineffective performance has served as further confirmation: The Red Sox are desperate for help in the bullpen. Beyond desperate, really. Hideki Okajima has an ERA of 6.00. Manny Delcarmen is on the disabled list, and even when healthy, he was still maddening Manny Delcarmen.

And the rest of this (mis)cast is currently made up of journeymen Scott Atchison and Robert Manuel, struggling veteran Ramon Ramirez, and unproven southpaw Dustin Richardson, who walked 24 in 32.1 innings at Pawtucket.

Overall, the bullpen ERA is 4.83, second-worst in the American League. They've allowed runs to score in five of the last six games. They have a league-high 13 blown saves. You get the picture.

If there were internal solutions, they'd be in Tampa Bay tonight. Michael Bowden, converted to the 'pen at Pawtucket, will get his chance, and Felix Doubront belongs on this team in some meaningful capacity. While Theo Epstein is rightfully reluctant to give up prospects for relief pitching, which is habitually volatile, he's probably going to have to do it -- or take on salary -- if the Sox intend to remain in contention in the AL East.

There are some intriguing trade candidates, though almost all have a flaw or a reason for concern. With that optimistic intro out of the way, here is a look at some pitchers who could be called upon to help salvage the Sox' relief mess, in order of appeal.

Kerry Wood: I like this idea more than I probably should. But I do like it. Staying healthy has never been his strong suit (thanks again, Dusty), and he's pitched just 18.2 innings this year for the Indians. Wood also walks too many batters (nine this year, 28 in 55 innings last season), and his adjusted ERA during his one-plus season in the American League is 88. (For perspective, Manny Delcarmen's ERA+ is 97 and Ramon Ramirez's is 93 this season.)

Still . . . he can still get a strikeout when he requires one, he still brings it in the high '90s, and an extra power pitcher in the 'pen is always a good thing.

And to be fully forthcoming, well . . . I'd just like to see the guy pitch for the Sox. It's hard to believe that it was 12 years ago that he burst onto the scene in a similar, if less-hyped, manner than Stephen Strasburg has this season.

If Pedro's famous 17-K one hitter against the Yankees isn't the most dominating pitching performance I've ever seen, that's because Wood's 20-K one-hitter (with the hit arguably being an error on third baseman Kevin Orie) in his rookie season in '98 was absolutely awe-inspiring. I've never seen a pitcher with a more overpowering repertoire than he had that day against the Astros.

I realize that is no reason to want him on the Red Sox now, 12 seasons, countless what-ifs, and a couple of scars later. But it's part of my reason. And while he doesn't have all of that old lightning in his right arm anymore, he's still perfectly capable of catching lightning in a bottle. I hope this happens more than any other alternative.

Scott Downs: Have to believe Toronto would be reluctant to trade the 34-year-old lefty within the division without receiving a relative ransom in return, but you know what? He might be worth it to a team with legitimate championship aspirations.

Downs has proven he can cut it in the AL East, with ERAs of 2.17, 1.78, 3.09 and 2.80 from 2007 through this season, and he's tough on both righties (.583 OPS in 90 plate appearances) and lefties (.186 batting average).

With the resuscitated White Sox unlikely to deal Matt Thornton, Downs is the most appealing lefty reliever likely to be available, and it's going to be fascinating to see where he ends up, because he's a relative prize.

Octavio_Dotel.jpgOctavio Dotel: He's of much more value to a contender than he is to the weakling Pirates.

His ERA is a tad high (4.28), but the 36-year-old journeyman is still a legit power arm who piles up the strikeouts (41 in 33.2 innings) while being stingy with the hits (27).

One reason for buyer to beware: His postseason track record is less than impressive, with a 7.88 ERA and a 2.00 WHIP in eight appearances with the '99 Mets and '01 Astros and '08 White Sox.

Matt Lindstrom: The hard-throwing 29-year-old righty is having a fine season for the Astros, with a 2.97 ERA and 19 saves in 33 appearances, though he has allowed more hits (38) than he has pitched innings (33.1) and his 1.50 WHIP is hardly inspiring.

But with his power arm, he's at least an intriguing option should the price be reasonable. Plus, you'd have to figure the Sox would be confident that he could handle it here should they deal for him, presuming Tito's old friend Millsy would give the Sox the scoop on his makeup.

Chad Qualls: He's consistent as far as relief pitchers go, with ERAs ranging from 2.81 to 3.76 during the first six seasons of his career leading up to this season.

But he's a risk now. He's been brutal for the Diamondbacks this season (7.67 ERA, 14.4 H/9), and given questions about his ability to pitch in pressure situations, he's probably best suited for a smaller market and the familiar National League. Pass, Theo.

Will Ohman: The lefty specialist, who will be 33 in August, has had a decent season for the Orioles (2.88 ERA in 41 appearances).

His command, however, is spotty (14 walks in 25 innings, and a 4.5 BB/9 ratio over his career), and he'd be a better fit as the second lefty out of the 'pen rather than as someone capable of taking over Hideki Okajima's role.

Another downside: Should he blow a big game, headline writers will not be able to resist throwing a comma in his last name.

Matt Capps: Yeah, the Nats closer is an All-Star this year, and a deserving one, though I'd rather have seen Strasburg. Like with the rest of this group, there are some significant red flags:

He's spent his entire six-year career pitching for lowly Pittsburgh and Washington, which isn't exactly AL East-level in terms of intensity or competition. He had a 5.80 ERA and a 1.66 WHIP last season for the Pirates. And he's allowed 44 hits in 36.1 innings this year.

There are better options . . .

Kyle Farnsworth: . . . but he's not one of 'em. Major League Baseball's best open-field tackler is having an excellent season for the Royals (2.04 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 26 Ks in 35.1 innings.) But again, he's having an excellent season for the Royals.

To put it another way: We're fairly certain Brian Cashman won't give a second of serious through to bringing him back to the Yankees. Maybe he's matured at age 34, but there should still be serious skepticism as to whether he can consistently contribute under the pressure of a pennant race.

Scott Williamson: We kid. Actually, Tito's probably pushing for Timlin.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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