Last in a four-part series looking at the Red Sox positional groups and possible solutions via free-agency. Part 1 on outfielders can be found here. Part 2 on the infield and catchers is here. Part 3 on the starting rotation is here. Today, the bullpen.
It makes sense to begin at the end, because other than the ongoing question of whether Daniel Bard is reparable or destined to be a cautionary tale, the most relevant question concerning the Red Sox' relatively deep and versatile bullpen is whether Andrew Bailey is the solution at closer.
His numbers during his three full seasons with the Oakland A's suggest that the answer is in the affirmative. From 2009-11, he saved 75 games with a 2.07 ERA, winning the AL Rookie of the Year award and posting numbers uncannily similar to the early work of the closer he would be called upon to replace in Boston, Jonathan Papelbon.
But to say it did not go well last year, that first season with the Red Sox, would be an understatement. He suffered a fluke thumb injury in spring training that kept him out until August. When he did return, he was ineffective, pitching to a 7.04 ERA in 15.1 innings. It did not help matters that the player the Red Sox gave up acquire him, Josh Reddick, hit 32 homers and won a Gold Glove as a driving force for the surprising playoff-bound A's.
This is deal that requires more than one year of consideration before conclusions are drawn, and not just because Reddick hit .215 in the second half. But no matter what happens going forward, Bailey will never be the most useless player with that surname to play for the Red Sox, it was a pretty miserable indoctrination to Boston for a pitcher who had found success easy to come by before coming here.
It's hard to believe the Red Sox would move away from Bailey as the closer after that one hard-luck, miserable aberration of a season, but there were reports that suggested he was nearly the compensation sent to the Jays for John Farrell. If his star has fallen that far within the organization -- and again, I'm skeptical -- it will be interesting to see what the Red Sox do to solve their issues in the ninth inning.
It's generally foolish to make a long-term commitment to any free-agent closer, and Junichi Tazawa, who with his increased velocity post-Tommy John surgery was a delightful revelation last season (1.43 ERA, 45 Ks and just 5 walks in 44 innings), is probably better suited establishing himself as the eighth-inning go-to pitcher when there's a lead for now.
This much we do know for now: If Bailey can be the pitcher he was in Oakland, all of the pieces should fall into place in the innings ahead of him without much of a foray into free agency. Let's take a look.
What can you say about Daniel Bard that wasn't already said during his season-long meltdown after he was converted from lights-out reliever to ill-equipped starter? He's broken, and it was awful to watch, and the greatest of the many challenges John Farrell and Juan Nieves face is trying to salvage him.
Well, I think we now know why the Yankees were so quick to get rid of Alfredo Aceves despite his successful track record. He's an extremely effective pitcher when he's not doing things that make you suspect he's insubordinate. If Farrell thinks he can get through to him, keep him, but if he gives any indication about dissatisfaction with his role, get him gone. The Red Sox don't need anymore recurring migraines.
He was excellent in 2011 for the Astros, atrocious in April 2012 for the Red Sox (five homers in two innings), excellent in Pawtucket in May and June, atrocious for the Red Sox in July and August, and excellent in September (0.90 ERA in eight appearances. No, Can you tell I have no idea what to expect from Mark Melancon in 2013?
THREE LEFTHANDED DUDES WHO SHOULD
PROVIDE BULLPEN FLEXIBILITY
Until last season, Andrew Miller was the epitome of the unfulfilled eternal prospect, a lefthanded, hard-throwing former first-round pick who kept getting chances for those reasons even though his performance was rarely encouraging. That is, until last year, the 27-year-old's seventh partial big-league season and first as a full-time reliever. Miller emerged as one of the Red Sox' most dependable relievers, making 53 appearances and striking out 51 in 40.1 innings. He's never going to be the star he was projected to be when chosen a pick ahead of Clayton Kershaw in the 2006 draft, but he has finally found his niche.
Health has been a recurring issue for Rich Hill -- in two-plus seasons with the Sox, the Milton native has pitched a total of 31.2 innings over 40 games while missing nearly a full season after Tommy John surgery. But when he's available, he's effective -- he has a 1.14 ERA in those 40 appearances.
Veteran Craig Breslow is arbitration-eligible, but he should be back. He was a model of consistency in two stops last year (2.70 ERA, 1.17 WHIP for Arizona, 2.70 ERA, 1.15 WHIP for Boston) and is also effective against righthanded hitters, who had a .683 OPS against him last year.
A TRIO OF CRAFTY VETERANS
Vicente Padilla is a free agent, but he was a relatively effective workhorse, and unless he decides to retire or go star in a sequel to "Machete'' or something, there are worse ideas than bringing him back.
Journeyman Scott Atchison is also arbitration-eligible, but for the first time in his career the 36-year-old will enter spring training with a secure major league job after posting a 1.58 ERA in 42 appearances last year.
With a time-altering changeup, Clayton Mortensen's repertoire is actually underpowering, if that's even a word, but he was quietly effective last season, striking out 41 in 42 innings with a 1.21 WHIP. He did give up seven homers, but at the least he's proof that the Red Sox got something for Marco Scutaro.
FOUR RIGHTHANDED DUDES WHO WILL
KNOW PAWTUCKET WELL NEXT SUMMER
Chris Carpenter can dial it up to the high 90s on the radar gun, but he's got a long way to go before he can shake the label as The Other Chris Carpenter, or worse, That's All We Got For Theo. David Carpenter, acquired as extra cargo in the Farrell/Mike Aviles swap, was going to be DFA'd by Toronto, has a career 5.70 ERA, and probably isn't even good for a decent rendition with Chris Carpenter of "We've Only Just Begun.'' Sandy Rosario has a 3.26 WHIP -- yes, not ERA, WHIP -- in 10 big-league games over three seasons. Zach Stewart was essentially the Red Sox' way of telling the White Sox, "Ah, what the hell, take Youkilis for nothin'.''
THE YANKEES ANGLE
I'm including Mariano Rivera out of proper respect and nothing more, for while the Yankees legend is technically a free agent, there's a better chance of him actually being bionic (a long-held suspicion at this address) or returning to his previous career as a khakis model than there is of him pitching for a team other than the Yankees. I hope he makes it back, because he's one player who deserves to go out on his own terms.
The Red Sox should not and probably will not pursue the closer who filled in for Rivera last year after his injury. Rafael Soriano is a fine closer (42 saves, 2.26 ERA last year), but he's 33 and looking for a long-term deal. Even if the Sox don't believe in Bailey, they'd be better pursuing a potential bargain such as Joakim Soria -- the former Royals closer whom the Yankees reportedly covet -- for the back end of the bullpen rather than giving three years to Soriano or someone of that ilk. Have we learned nothing from the Rays?
The Red Sox had interest in Ryan Madson as a closer last winter, but he signed with the Reds and promptly blew out his elbow. He's a terrific low-risk, high-reward option. A pair of former Rangers, control artist Koji Uehara and former Padre Mike Adams, may warrant a kicking of the tires, and considering the good fortune the Red Sox have had with relief pitchers who came over from Japan (Hideki Okajima, and now Tazawa), it makes sense that Kyuji Fujikawa, a 32-year-old lefty who had a 1.32 ERA for the Hanshin Tigers last year, could draw serious interest.
Bailey pitches like he did from 2009-11 in Oakland, Tazawa is as effective in meaningful games as he was when all was lost last year, Miller continues to live up to his talent, and Farrell repairs Bard.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO THAT DOESN'T INCLUDE BARD BEANING WALLY THE GREEN MONSTER
Bailey gets some weird injury yet again, Bard continues down the Ankiel/Blass path, last year's overachievers (Atchison, Mortensen, and Padilla if he returns) falter and no one picks up the slack.
Bailey reemerges as a dependable if less-than-durable closer, Tazawa settles in as an effective righthanded setup man, and the pieces fall into place in the middle innings for what should be a deep, dependable bullpen.
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.