The Latest on the 2012 Red Sox Bullpen

Sunday April 15th, 2012

Sam Evans: The Boston Red Sox are in trouble. The A.L. East looks as strong as ever with four out of the five teams talented enough to make the playoffs. The Red Sox will have problems keeping up with the rest of the East due to some crucial injuries that they’ve suffered. First, the Red Sox just lost their best outfielder, Jacoby Ellsbury, for who knows how long. Also, Carl Crawford might be out until May. Maybe longer. A shaky bullpen is suffering from the loss of Jonathan Papelbon (free agency), Daniel Bard (moved to the rotation), and Andrew Bailey (injury), which does not help the Red Sox stay in contention. Some of their relief pitchers as a result need to step it up.

Other than the abysmal Orioles, the Red Sox have the worst bullpen in the A.L. East. The majority of their relief pitchers are unproven pitchers who don’t belong in a top-tier bullpen. Currently, the Red Sox plan to have Alfredo Aceves closing out games. Aceves has been considered a long reliever for most of his career and this past offseason, the Red Sox even contemplated trying Aceves out in the rotation.

When I wrote about the Red Sox bullpen back in January, things were looking a lot more optimistic. Boston had just traded for Andrew Bailey, and I expected them to sign a veteran starting pitcher like Roy Oswalt, Hiroki Kuroda, or Edwin Jackson. For some reason, General Manager Ben Cherington avoided these three pitchers and it has resulted in Felix Doubront being their number four starter. I have nothing against Doubront. But anytime you plan on contending in the A.L. East, you can’t count on someone who had a 5.44 FIP the previous year to be your fourth best starter.

To put together a strong bullpen is neither extremely difficult nor expensive. The Brewers closer John Axford came out of nowhere to close for a perennial playoff-contending team. There’s no right way to assemble a bullpen. The Yankees built a successful bullpen by a combination of multi-year contracts, as well as grabbing overlooked minor league players. The Diamondbacks on the other hand, built their bullpen by compiling hard-throwing pitchers who knew how to use a spacious park to their advantage.

It takes time to assemble a strong bullpen in Boston. If the Red Sox want to build an above-average bullpen, they’ll need to give their pitchers innings to show what they can do. The problem is that the Red Sox can’t afford to give important innings to unproven pitchers. Every game matters. The 2011 Red Sox team started 2-10, and ended up missing the playoffs on the last day of the season. Remember that game against the Orioles? If Boston wants to give innings to their inexperienced pitchers, it needs to be in low-pressure situations only.

Momentum is a criminally underrated factor in baseball. Sometimes in the midst of all the statistics, we can forget about how important the players’ emotions are. I can imagine that there are not many more depressing moments in Major League baseball than watching your bullpen blow open a game. Baseball players are human. After watching both Jacoby Ellsbury and Andrew Bailey get injured, Red Sox players probably don’t have the most confidence in their team right now.

If the Red Sox want to get their mojo back, they need the front office to help. If the Red Sox add a strong asset to their bullpen, the team will know that the front office believes that the Red Sox can win this year. Adding either a late-inning power reliever or a back-end starter would provide the Red Sox with not only a momentum boost, but also another piece for Manager Bobby Valentine to utilize to achieve the best results from his team.

The key for Andrew Bailey is staying healthy. In Oakland, he could never stay healthy, and so far in Boston, he has yet to pitch in a regular season game. Last year, Bailey had a 2.86 FIP and a 2.59 BB/9. While those are the kind of numbers that you’re looking for in a Major League closer, it doesn’t matter if Bailey can’t stay healthy. When the Red Sox get Bailey back, it will be a huge boost to the bullpen. However, if Bailey can’t stay healthy, he will never be able to become an elite MLB closer. Not in Boston…or anywhere else.

The latest news on Andrew Bailey’s thumb is that he will miss at least eight weeks. That’s a long time to be without your closer, so the Red Sox need a pitcher to step up and take reign of the closer role. Mark Melancon and Alfredo Aceves are two in-organization options who are the favorites to battle for the Red Sox closer job.

Mark Melancon is a very good relief pitcher. Melancon, 27, came over in the Jed Lowrie trade with the Astros this offseason. The Red Sox are probably regretting having made this trade because Mike Aviles is their starting shortstop and Aviles is not very good (trading away Marco Scutaro to the Rockies didn’t help either). Melancon uses a unique combination of strikeouts (66K in 74 IP in 2011) and groundballs (56.7% GB in 2011) to get hitters out.

In a limited sample size this season, Melancon hasn’t looked sharp. In two innings, he’s thrown forty-five pitches, given up three line drives, and allowed five earned runs. Not to mention, in his one save opportunity in extra innings against the Tigers, where he gave up a walk-off homer to Alex Avila. Aceves is currently the closer, but I see no reason why Melancon can’t take his job if he strings together some solid outings. Remember, baseball is a game of what have you done for me lately.

If there was such thing as a utility pitcher, Alfredo Aceves would match the definition. Aceves is a twenty-nine year old pitcher from Mexico who has been used in many different situations. Last year, Aceves pitched 114 innings with a 2.61 ERA. He only started four games and he was used primarily as a long reliever. However, he did have two saves in which he pitched three innings in both. This winter, Aceves was expected to be the Red Sox fourth or fifth starter until Felix Doubront stole his job this spring. Perhaps as a consolation, Aceves was named the Red Sox closer on Opening Day.

So far, Aceves has struggled. In two innings pitched, Aceves has given up three runs. He is one for two in save opportunities with his lone save coming against the Blue Jays. The good news is that he is throwing his fastball harder than he ever has in his five-year Major League career. In the small sample size we’ve seen of Aceves, his average fastball velocity is 93.7 MPH. Also, his changeup and curveball velocities are at career highs.

In terms of relief pitchers, there are plenty of options for the Red Sox to pursue. I’m sure that the Red Sox have already inquired about a number of players. But if they wanted to trade for a decent relief pitcher, Brandon League, Jose Veras, or Huston Street might be available. They don’t need to look outside of the organization to get bullpen help, but it wouldn’t hurt.

Right now, sadly the Red Sox bullpen is the least of their problems. The Boston outfield is missing their two best outfielders and the rotation is in major trouble if one of the starters gets hurt. If I were in the Red Sox front office, I would attempt to pry a pitcher like Wade LeBlanc from the Marlins, or an average outfielder to give the Sox value while Crawford and Ellsbury are gone. But as far as relief goes, if Aceves or Melancon can be the closers the Red Sox think they can be, the bullpen will be just fine. There are many question marks to start the year in Boston. It looks like the front office has its work cut out for it already.

***Today’s feature was prepared by Sam Evans, Baseball Writer.  We highly encourage you to leave your comments and feedback at the bottom of the page and share in the discussion with our readers.  You can also follow Sam on Twitter (@RJA206)***

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About samevans87

I love writing, talking, watching, and playing baseball. I am a baseball writer for MLB Reports and Fish Stripes. "No game in the world is as tidy and dramatically neat as baseball, with cause and effect, crime and punishment, motive and result, so cleanly defined." -Paul Gallic

Posted on April 15, 2012, in The Rest: Everything Baseball and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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