Red Sox preview, part II: Boston bullpen in 2012

On paper, Daniel Bard, appears next in line for the Boston closer job. But don't be surprised if the Red Sox kick the tires outside of the organization, too. (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Though the lineup for the Red Sox in 2012 does not require an enormous overhaul so much as it needs to be supplemented by a more capable cast of supporting characters – an everyday shortstop, another right-handed bat, and a stronger bench – the opposite can be said for the bullpen.

Overall, the “addition by subtraction” mentality Cherington seems to have adopted already in terms of the relievers – not picking up the options for Dan Wheeler and Scott Atchison, and conceding Jonathan Papelbon to Philadelphia – is a good start towards fixing the most glaring weakness for the Red Sox over the past five years. Unfortunately, Wheeler was supposed to help stop the bleeding last year when Theo addressed the relief issues, but seemed almost invisible through most of the season. The same can be said for Bobby Jenks, though he was injured for most of the year.

These injuries left Matt Albers, Daniel Bard and Papelbon, as well as Alfredo Aceves and Tim Wakefield (when they weren’t making elongated spot starts), as the remaining options in the bullpen. Eventually, the weakness of the bullpen was exposed due to the inability of Red Sox starters to go deep in games. As a result, solidifying the bullpen in a significant way, the way they have with the lineup, is a necessity for the Red Sox to be competitive in the American League, let alone win another World Series.

Though I feel Papelbon will be abundantly successful in Philadelphia, as the National League has always favored pitchers and Papelbon will benefit from facing new hitters, his time in Boston had run its course. After two disappointing seasons in 2009 and 2010, which were both directly impacted by Papelbon’s inability to close out games, the All-Star reliever returned to form in 2011, blowing only one save over the course of the summer. Unfortunately, he could not maintain this resurgence in September and blew two critical games against Baltimore at the end of the year. As a result of such meaningful shortcomings, he became too much of liability for the Red Sox, as he will eventually become in Philadelphia, unless he can incorporate another breaking ball into his repertoire.

Replacing Pap is a necessity in 2012; unfortunately, the answer is not going to come from “in house.” Given Papelbon’s seven losses and six blown saves in 2010, Daniel Bard entered the 2011 regular season much as Tim Tebow did with the Denver Broncos: one bad showing away from the everyday job. However, Papelbon didn’t stumble until July and retained the job. Now, with Papelbon out of Boston, Bard seems to be the obvious choice to succeed him. Bard, however, posted 11 decisions in 2011, nine of them resulting in losses. When many criticized Wakefield being allowed so many opportunities to surpass the 200 win mark, often it was Bard’s inefficiency that blew the opportunity. Bard still has value, but for the moment, it should only be showcased in a setup role.

One proven closer the Red Sox do have is Jenks, who closed out 173 games in Chicago, as well as another four in the 2005 postseason, en route to a World Series title. However, those numbers dropped off considerably after 2007 when Jenks hit his high-water mark of 41 saves followed by another 40 in 2008. Since then, Jenks has failed to save more than 30 games in a given season. Papelbon, despite seven losses, still had 37 saves in 2010. This is not to say that Jenks is not a candidate for the closing role going into spring training, but the continued recurrence of a back injury that sidelined him at the end of 2010 and throughout most of 2011 makes it hard to trust him as a long-term option.

Again, as the Red Sox look to rebuild, stability is key. For this reason, the Red Sox must limit their search to proven, healthy closers. The short list of pitchers who have been mentioned includes Cincinnati veteran Francisco Cordero, Padres closer Heath Bell and even recent Phillies closer Ryan Madson. Coming off four dominant seasons in Cincinnati, Cordero is a hot commodity in the free-agent pool, posting a 2.45 ERA last season on his way to 37 saves. Bell surpasses these marks, averaging a 2.33 ERA and 44 saves over his last three All-Star caliber seasons since taking over for future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman. He also has the benefit of Adrian Gonzalez’s backing in Boston.

With the addition of Papelbon in Philly, free-agent reliever Ryan Madson may be another pitcher on the move. Madson has averaged a 2.85 ERA since becoming a full-time reliever for the Phillies in 2007 and posted 32 saves in 62 appearances last year. The problem with the free-agent market right now, though, is the hefty contract Papelbon just signed. Papelbon’s guaranteed four years at $50 million has set the precedent for the market for relief pitchers.

With this in mind, one option that the Red Sox could entertain is Rockies closer, and former Rookie of the Year, Huston Street. With one year remaining on his contract and an option for 2013, Colorado has admitted they are looking to move Street. Though not as dominant as Cordero, Bell and Madson, Street could be a good fit to help Boston solidify middle relief in the bullpen, and, what’s more, they have the pieces to obtain him.

Colorado, after dealing Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland in 2011, should be looking for starting pitching to help rebuild, as well. In the Red Sox system, Boston has held out hope that Michael Bowden would be able to produce in a meaningful way, but that time does not seem to be coming anytime soon. Despite a few strong outings, both as a starter and reliever, watching Bowden has been rather disappointing from what I have seen, but to try to make it in a National League system, which I maintain favors pitchers, might allow Bowden the opportunity to make a resurgence.

Another minor leaguer who might provide some value could be Pawtucket first baseman Lars Anderson. With two years left, current Rockies first baseman, and future Hall of Famer, Todd Helton will be 39 years old when his contract expires in two years. Filling in for an injured Kevin Youkilis in 2010, Anderson has proven he has what it takes to be an everyday starter, he just needs the chance. After the Red Sox dealt top-prospect Anthony Rizzo to San Diego in the winter of 2010, Anderson is the top first-base prospect with the Sox right now. Unfortunately for Anderson, Rizzo’s departure meant the arrival of Adrian Gonzalez. Unless the Sox intend to use Anderson off the bench in 2012, which is unlikely as he, too, is a left-handed hitter, Anderson’s best chance to contribute at a major-league level is to leave Boston.

If the tandem of Bowden and Anderson is not enough for the Rockies, perhaps they would be willing to take a chance and wait a year on either Daisuke Matsuzaka or John Lackey, both of whom will be rehabbing in 2012 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. While this would be a relief for Red Sox fans, team owners most likely want to get one last look to see if either of these two pitchers can finally pay dividends for Boston after the surgery. For Colorado, however, Daisuke earned a win in his only start at Coors Field during game three of the 2007 World Series, allowing only two runs on three hits over 5.1 innings. Lackey, too, has had success in the Mile High City, winning there with the Angels in 2006 and earning a no-decision with the Red Sox in 2010; a game in which he also hit a double off Jimenez.

In addition to filling the closer role, if the Red Sox can address the problems in their rotation this offseason (Part III coming Wednesday), the pitchers who remain should give Boston plenty of options for middle relief in 2012. Albers can be effective, but I think his performance in 2011 was skewed by the amount of times he was relied upon, much like Bard. Joining Jenks on the disabled list last year was also Milton, MA, native Rich Hill, who was pitching well before Tommy John surgery ended his season, as well. Aceves, Wakefield, Felix Doubront and Andrew Miller are all candidates to join the starting rotation in 2012, but none – save for Wakefield – have proven they can consistently go deep in games. All are definitely strong enough to help stabilize the bullpen; Doubront even has experience as a closer. Overall, after the tumult this organization has undergone in the past three months, the Red Sox organization could use a little relief.

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