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The Red Sox bullpen figures to play a huge role in how far this team can go. In the 2007 Championship season, the relievers were dominant in front of the elite Jonathan Papelbon. Hideki Okajima was an All-Star and Manny Delcarmen, Mike Timlin, and the rest of the pen set him up nearly perfectly.
This was not the case in 2008 as the bullpen got off to a rough start, particularly in setting up Papelbon, who was still dominant. Okajima allowed inherited runners to score and Timlin had a forgettable season. Justin Masterson finished the season as Papelbon’s primary set up man, a role that seemed to fit Masterson and the Red Sox well. Which bullpen shows up this season will figure greatly into how far the Red Sox can go.
The biggest question regarding how the bullpen shakes up will be where Justin Masterson falls. He joined the starting rotation when he came up and then with the glut of starters as it turned out, he transitioned into a very valuable setup man for Papelbon. He was the most consistent option Terry Francona could turn to late in the stretch drive and into the playoffs. The Sox appear set in the rotation with plenty of veteran options, so it would appear that Papelbon will reprise his bullpen role.
The Red Sox made a few acquisitions that could stabilize the bullpen as well. First, they cleared the logjam in the outfield by sending Coco Crisp to Kansas City for Ramon Ramirez. He had a fine season with the Royals last year, posting a 2.64 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and struck out nearly one per inning in 71 appearances. He spent the previous two seasons with the Rockies, putting up a 3.46 ERA in 61 appearances in 2006 and had a rough go of 2007 in an abbreviated major league season. He certainly appears to fit in the Red Sox mold with a high K-rate and low WHIP.
The Red Sox recently picked up former Dodger closer Takashi Saito, who should be a great addition, though he is coming off his worst season in MLB. He missed part of the season on the disabled list which contributed to his “off year.” He put up a 2.49 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and a 1.28 strikeout per inning rate. For his Major League career, he has a 1.95 ERA and 0.91 WHIP, so though his numbers were great last year, he did not meet the high bar he had set for himself.
Saito is also older than most realize, as he will be 39 before the season begins, only coming to the States three seasons ago, so injuries could be a concern here. However, as a former closer, he would seem to have the tools and mentality to be a solid arm.
The Red Sox also imported yet another arm directly from Japan to unite with fellow countrymen Daisuke Matsuzaka, Okajima, and Saito in Junichi Tazawa. Tazawa’s big impact is that he is the first to bypass Japanese professional baseball entirely to come right to the MLB and could pave the way for others to follow. He is only 22 and would appear to be a work in progress as he seems to have the tools, but lacks the big time experience, so he may not even start the season in Boston.
The Red Sox are pretty sure they know what Papelbon will give them and if Masterson continues where he left off last year, this bullpen could turn out to be the shutdown corps the 2007 group was. Saito should be a stable veteran presence and perhaps Okajima will bounce back to form as well. Relievers tend to get a lot of teams in trouble, but the Red Sox have the luxury of a plethora of quality starting pitchers who should be able to take them deep into games more often than not. With Pap’s consistency, the rest of the bullpen may only need to provide a couple quality innings on most nights.