Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Revamped bullpen aims for championship numbers

Okajima's back with the Red Sox but, with so many new faces, he won't quite be used the same...Check it out also at Boston Sports Then and Now

Last year, the Sox had one of the most prolific offenses in the American League, finishing second in runs scored. However, their offense couldn't carry the team as they failed to make the playoffs for the first time in four years.

The 2010 Red Sox had many problems but the bullpen was a big one. The Sox had one of the worst relief ERAs in the American League at 4.24 and blew 23 saves.

"I think the bullpen is important," said Sox manager Terry Francona in early December. "We probably lost some games there last year that hurt us. That's a hard way to lose games, especially when you want to be a good team."

A great measuring stick is the fact that the world champion San Francisco Giants' relief pitchers allowed the second fewest runs per game in the majors, 3.60. When the Sox won the World Series back in '04 and '07, their bullpen was right at the top of the league.

Needless to say, having good relievers is important.

Aside from bringing in Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to immensely improve the Red Sox lineup, GM Theo Epstein has made great strides towards fixing the Boston bullpen this off-season.

Bobby Jenks and Rhode Island native, Dan Wheeler, are great additions. The Wheeler-Bard-Jenks-Papelbon foursome will be a tough one to handle. Especially for right-handers. Yet, that's just the thing.

The Sox are stacked with right-handed pitchers in their line-up and don't really have a clear-cut designated left-handed specialist. Breaking down the bullpen, there's two spots left to be filled and both could very well go to the left-handed pitchers on the Sox roster.

Despite his struggles last year, Papelbon will be the closer once again with Jenks and Bard setting him up in the late innings. Dan Wheeler gets the nod at another spot as he'll be able to shutdown any right-handed batter that walks to the plate. Tim Wakefield will also likely be on the roster as a long reliever and insurance starter. It gets tricky with the next two spots available.

It's likely that two left-handers will earn those two roster spots. As WEEI's Alex Speier points out in a mid-December article, Francona prefers to have two lefties in the bullpen as a means of keeping them from getting worn out.

The current lefties that could fill those two spots are Felix Doubront, Lenny DiNardo, Randy Williams, Hideki Okajima, Rich Hill and Andrew Miller.

Of the six, Doubront and Okajima are the two most familiar to Sox fans, and the likely two to take the roster spots.

Doubront could be used as the left-handed specialist in the Sox lineup, but he has a bright career ahead of him as a future starter. Ideally, Okajima would regain his old form from 2007 and 2008 so the Sox could avoid using Doubront in this role -- instead sending him to the minor leagues to continue getting groomed as a starter. However, Terry Francona isn't worried about the young leftie spending time in the bullpen.

"He obviously has the ability to start maybe in the near future," the Sox manager said of Doubront. "Maybe the way our team sets up, maybe he's in the bullpen. Whether it's for a year and then transitions into a starting role, I don't think there would be anything we'd do that would throw him or knock him back"

"He holds runners, he throws strikes. He's not afraid of his fastball. He's a really interesting guy. Kind of a nice name to have when you're looking at building your bullpen, knowing that you have a lefty with three months service time that you feel confident you can give him the ball somewhat late in the game. That's a nice feeling."

Signs point to Doubront getting a spot in the bullpen as a left-handed specialist who could also provide long relief or insurance in case a starter is injured.

Since Tito would prefer to have two lefties in the bullpen, especially when one is going to be a starter someday, Okajima would likely get the last spot in the pen.

Okie-Dokie has struggled the last two years, so much so that it was a bit of a surprise the Sox re-signed him to a one year deal. However, as WEEI's Rob Bradford points out in great detail (worth the read), the Sox are likely brining Okajima back for a much different role than he served in his first two years.

"The reality facing Okajima is that he is unlikely ever again to be the crucial contributor that he was for the Red Sox when he burst onto the scene as an All-Star in 2007 and a key bullpen member from 2007-09," writes Bradford. "Even so, the Sox are not signing him to be that pitcher. His opportunity now would appear to be as a complementary piece, rather than as one of the most critical two or three relievers on the team"

"Okajima could become a pitcher whom the Sox turn to against tough lefties, and who could see further action in games when the Sox are either leading by a substantial margin or trailing. If he rediscovers some sort of solution to establish his fastball against right-handers, then he could morph into something more than that."

So, on opening day at least, the Red Sox bullpen is likely to consist of: Jonathan Papelbon, Bobby Jenks, Daniel Bard, Dan Wheeler, Tim Wakefield, Felix Doubront and Hideki Okajima.

It's a vast upgrade from last year's squad, and an important one too. If the Sox get a lead, it's going to be hard for teams to rally against these relievers, especially when it's Jenks, Bard or a hopefully revitalized Papelbon taking the mound.

In order to win a championship, you need a strong bullpen. It looks like the Sox will have one.

1 comment:

  1. I do feel as though if we actually were able to consistently play the half dozen all stars that were injured a lot last year that it would have counter-acted the bullpen problem.

    We didn't miss the playoffs by that much, and I can only assume that we'd have nailed at least a few more wins without those injuries.