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2012 Red Sox Preview: Relief Pitchers

Andrew Bailey

A big storyline heading into this new season is how the Red Sox bullpen will perform given significant personal changes. Gone is four-time All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon to free agency. A big change awaits former dominate set up man Daniel Bard as he is stretched out to start this year to help a limited rotation. Here’s a look at 11 pitchers who should have some impact on the success of the Red Sox bullpen in 2012.

Closer

Andrew Bailey

When Papelbon signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for a lucrative contract, Boston received questions as to who would replace him this year. The answer came on December 28th when they acquired Andrew Bailey in a five-player trade with the Oakland Athletics. The 2009 Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Star is 27 years old and should be great as the Sox closer, as long as he stays on the field.

In the last two seasons he’s appeared in only 89 games closing for Oakland, and last year his ERA jumped to 3.24 in 41.0 innings. He has consistently saved around 25 games each season and should be expected to earn a few more on a better Boston club, but the most important thing is clearly his health. If he isn’t healthy throughout the majority of the season it’s going to hurt the Sox depth, though they do have other options to close.

Set Up Man

Mark Melancon

The Red Sox actually traded for two closers this Winter, as a few weeks before the Bailey trade they acquired reliever Mark Melancon from Houston in a deal including infielder Jed Lowrie. Initially thought of as the new closer, Melancon will serve as an eighth inning set up man for Bailey. Last year in his real first complete season he posted a 2.78 ERA with 20 saves for a bad Astros ball club.

This year the former Yankees reliever will need to adjust to a bigger market rather than the Houston environment where he found comfort. I naturally expect his ERA to rise in the American League, but for him to perform as an admirable replacement for Bard. Inning count doesn’t seem like much of a concern for him, as he tossed 74.1 last season. If Bailey were to go down Melancon could slide right into that closer role like he had with the Astros.

Starters or Relievers?

Alfredo Aceves

People talk about Alfredo Aceves like he’s a Cy Young award winner. And they should. Another former Yankee, he was arguably the most important pitcher for the Red Sox last year. This year he’s being considered to begin the season as a fifth starter, and he could pull it off as he bounced back and forth between starting and pitching a few innings here and there in relief in 2011.

Last year Aceves pitched 114.0 innings with a great 2.61 ERA. In his career between Boston and New York he’s had a knack for earning victories without losing much, posting a combined remarkable 24-3 record. I think he’s most valuable in the bullpen right now and should see plenty of action in the middle innings and even the seventh this season.

Daniel Bard

Personally, I have a problem with Bard as a starter this season. Clearly he wanted the “promotion” and the Red Sox have a need for starting pitching, but I feel like with all the turmoil in the Red Sox organization right now, he’s the type of guy you leave alone. Sure his ERA elevated to 3.33 last year but his WHIP was better than ever at 0.959. In my opinion, he was becoming a great set up man and was a clear candidate to close one day, but that doesn’t mean starting games is a bad decision either.

The most important aspect of his transition to the rotation is that Bard wants it, it’s not a managerial decision being forced down upon him, it’s a role he wants with the team and is willing to work at. Early in Spring Training he’s looked pretty good going multiple innings and will likely fit in the fourth spot in the rotation come April.

Middle Relief Options

Matt Albers

In his second season with the Red Sox, Matt Albers will have a similar role of middle reliever who will appear in a few games a week, building up a solid innings count over the course of the season. Last year he pitched 64.2 innings with a 4.73 ERA, which is roughly where he’ll likely fall this year.

Rich Hill

I’m not quite sure what to make of Rich Hill after the 15 total games he’s appeared in with the Red Sox over the last two seasons. It’s always interesting at the beginning of a year when a lefty has a shot at the bullpen, because usually there’s a general perception that the pitcher can be great. Hill certainly could be valuable to the Sox, but great is a stretch at best. Look for him to face some of better left-handed bats in the American League East, like Robinson Cano, Carlos Pena, and Nick Markakis.

Bobby Jenks

Throughout this Winter there has been a surprising positive vibe towards Bobby Jenks, who struggled mightily in his first season with Boston last year mostly due to injuries. Jenks pitched just 15.2 innings in 19 games after being seen as an ideal seventh inning pitcher. This offseason he faced a life-threatening surgical procedure on his back, but the hope is that he will emerge as a possible solid reliever like his days in Chicago.

Franklin Morales

The Red Sox got exactly what they thought they were getting when Franklin Morales was traded to them from the Rockies. He was an effective lefty who maintains an ERA below 4.00. He pitched 32.1 innings with the Sox and 46.1 overall for the year between the two leagues, striking out 31 and walking 11 while in Boston. He should see the majority of the time pitching against lefties in 2012 unless Rich Hill is healthy and effective.

Long Relief Options

Michael Bowden

So far there hasn’t much to glamor over in Michael Bowden‘s time at the big league level, but he has that slight promise of a potential starter that keeps him around. He’s only 25 years old and certainly has time to grow, but this year could be a decisive on terms of how the Sox view him long term. Bowden should see some time in the bullpen this season, and should see more innings than the 20.0 he pitched last year.

Felix Doubront

I really thought this would be the year Felix Doubront would be viewed as a member of the rotation, and it’s still possible he gets there, but for now his role remains long lefty reliever. He’s appeared in the last two seasons for Boston and has shown good stuff at times despite high ERA numbers. He still needs plenty of work but the potential remains for the 24-year old.

Junichi Tazawa

While Japanese pitchers might not have the best reputation pitching in Boston lately, Junichi Tazawa will see some time with the club this year. He pitched 25.1 innings in 2009 but hasn’t been around much lately because of injuries. He’s headed for the minor leagues without a doubt, but if someone gets hurt it’s likely his name will come up to log some innings over the course of the summer months.

What to Expect

There is little depth in the Red Sox bullpen, and it remains a key weakness for the team heading into this year. Those optimistic about a championship run to avenge last year’s collapse better be expecting some roster changes at some point, because beyond Bailey, Melancon, and Aceves it’s hard to imagine this bullpen maintaining leads all season long. At the end of the day health will be the biggest factor for the success of these players, especially the closer Bailey. If they are healthy Bailey and Melancon could form a dynamic 1-2 punch shortening games and helping take stress of the front part of the rotation. Let’s hope so.

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