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Once a weakness that led to the heartbreaking loss to the Yankees in the 2003 ALCS, the Red Sox bullpen has been the gold standard for the last few seasons, being referred to as “one of the best in baseball” at times by many. Anchored by Jonathan Papelbon, the relief pitching for the Red Sox has continued to improve in depth and ability. Despite some shaky performances, including the meltdown against the Angels to end the 2009 season, the 2010 bullpen looks to continue the recent run of success.
In 2009, Papelbon was the victim of his own success. Since winning the closer’s job away from Keith Foulke, Papelbon has not worried about much on the mound apart from coming up with new dance moves. Simply put: Papelbon has been beyond good, and in 2009, he was merely a great reliever and not superhuman. Papelbon has seen his WHIP increase from 0.77 in 2007 to 0.95 in 2008 and a “whopping” 1.15 in 2009. This increase is entirely due to a large increase in walks. Papelbon walked 24 batters in 2009, by far the most of his career after walking 19 in his 34 inning stint in 2005. Are the walks part of a decline in Papelbon’s control?
There were a lot of full counts last year against Papelbon and he has been vocal in saying he needs to pace himself during the season to stay at his best, not just blowing everyone away with his fastball every time. While the struggles in the ALDS last year call people to suggest Papelbon needs to go, 2010 will show us a lot, and if the walks decrease, he could be just as dominant as he was before 2009. For fantasy players, Papelbon is almost a buy-low. For fans, hopefully the quick saves return.
Hideki Okajima has given Francona a left-handed reliever he can use nearly every day and who can usually get the job done. In his three years with the Red Sox, the Japanese lefty has dominantly held same-sided batters to a .193/.254/.303/.549 line while righties recorded a .237/.308/.371/.679 line. One concern: righties hit .303/.386/.520/.906 against Okajima in 2009.
Daniel Bard took the American League by storm last year with his 100-mph heater and his dominating slider. In 49 innings with the Red Sox in 2009 Bard struck out 63 batters while walking 22, good for a 2.86 K:BB ratio, a 1.28 WHIP and over 11 strikeouts per nine innings. Bard induced groundballs half the time in the majors and over 60% in Double A and Triple A during the last two seasons. Bard should become a fixture in the eighth inning and is the Red Sox best insurance policy against Papelbon leaving as a free agent or suffering an injury. As with Papelbon himself, 2010 could shape Bard’s career and the future of the Red Sox closer job.
2009 was again a tale of two seasons for Manny Delcarmen. After posting a 2.41 ERA in 33.2 innings during the first half of the season, Delcarmen became the league’s punching bag at a 7.27 ERA in 26 second half innings. Opposing hitters owned the righty with a .292/.400/.547/.947 line, or, Delcarmen turned every batter he faced into Mark Teixeria (.292/.383/.565/.948). Having entered 2009 as a trusted reliever, Delcarmen will have to return to form if he hopes to unseat Bard as the shutdown righty Francona can rely on.
The Ramon Ramirez acquired prior to last season for Coco Crisp (the Red Sox picked up a second Ramon Ramirez after the season) had a solid first year with Boston. However it was not a season without problems. Ramirez saw his home run total increase to seven in 69 innings after allowing just two the previous season. In 33 innings at Fenway, Ramirez had a 2.73 ERA while his road ERA in 36.2 innings was 2.95. However, batters facing him in Fenway hit .285/.363/.477/.840 while those on the road hit just .182/.289/.295/.585. Ramirez may be due for a regression in his ERA this year as batters were reaching base against him at a far greater rate than they were scoring. In 2008, 54% of hits allowed by Ramirez were ground balls. This number was 42% last year. With the Red Sox re-shaped defense in the infield and in the outfield, there is a chance Ramirez can be saved some of these additional hits that occurred in Fenway Park.
It is nothing close to a guarantee that Michal Bowden will break camp with the big league team, but if he does, he is an intriguing option. Having been groomed as a starter in the minors, Bowden could provide the unique value of mop-up man, short reliever, and spot starter. In the majors, Bowden has been a mixed bag at best, tossing either a few shutout innings or getting hammered. In two appearances, two innings against the Yankees and three against the Blue Jays, Bowden gave up a total of 14 earned runs. In his 11 remaining innings, Bowden gave up just three runs, so it wasn’t all bad, though Baltimore, Kansas City and Cleveland are not offensive powerhouses.
Time may be running out for Tim Wakefield. The signing of John Lackey, emergence of Clay Buchholtz, and return to health of Daisuke Matsuzaka have left Wakefield with an uncertain role entering the 2010 season. While Wake has declared his intention to compete for a spot in the starting rotation and the Red Sox have previously kept him out of the bullpen for health reasons, there isn’t much room for him to start the season on the major league roster except as a reliever. Most likely the Red Sox will need more than five starting pitchers during this season – at some point players will either need to go on the DL or have a start skipped – but this arrangement would leave Wakefield with starts few and far between. Right now, only Terry Francona knows Wakefield’s future, but with a new two-year contract and just a few wins to catch Cy Young and Roger Clemens for the most ever as a Red Sox, Wakefield is likely to play a big role with the team.