Ostensibly, the 2009 Red Sox had one of the very best bullpens in the American League, trailing only Oakland for bullpen ERA. I was reminded of this since I finally had a chance this week to dig into my Hardball Times 2010 Annual on a cross-country flight, and one of the points Evan Brunell's 2009 AL East round-up makes is that relief pitching was really the only area where Boston enjoyed an edge over the rival Yankees.
If ERA is your thing, Jonathan Papelbon had another excellent year. Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, Ramon Ramirez and Daniel Bard combined for over 235 innings of 3.21 ERA pitching. Billy Wagner pitched effectively down the stretch. Of the Red Sox relievers slated for regular work in 2009, it was only Manny Delcarmen that struggled.
While Wagner and Saito have both moved onto Atlanta, Delcarmen, Ramirez, Bard and Okajima are back. And when you peek more closely at the second half performance in 2009 of these four, the outcome is not quite as pretty. All four saw their performances drop off dramatically. Ramirez and Okajima's peripherals were awful, Delcarmen was finally shelved after his performance made it plainly evident that he was hurt and Bard suffered from some tough in-play luck. By the time the post-season started, the Red Sox bullpen was limping to the finish line. Papelbon's Game 3 meltdown against the Angels in the ALDS seemed a fitting ending for a team that struggled for bullpen consistency over their last 70 games or so.
With their starting pitching looking top notch, their defense much improved and a lineup in store for another big year, the Red Sox come into 2010 with some questions in the bullpen. Have a look at Boston's relief holdover contingent's fielding independent figures from 2009:
If you take Boston's starting rotation plus Tim Wakefield and then add these five, the Red Sox would appear to have one roster spot available in the bullpen. But given what I have run through thus far, it seems like contingency planning for subpar performance from Delcarmen, Okajima and/or Ramirez would be smart. Likewise, Papelbon's walk rate spike is worth monitoring. Bard seems like he might be the most solid of the bunch.
Smartly, the Red Sox seem to be planning for the worst case with a host of youngsters, live arms, reclamation projects and hangers-on with mixed track records in professional baseball. The list won't knock your socks (Sox?) off, but it would seem likely that a couple of effective arms would emerge from the likes of Joe Nelson, Brian Shouse, Boof Bonser, Ramon A. Ramirez, Michael Bowden, Fabio Castro, Scott Atchison, Dustin Richardson, Felix Doubront, Fernando Cabrera, Junichi Tazawa and others. Some will move on because they are out of options or because they negotiated out-clauses in their Minor League contracts, but it appears that the Red Sox should have enough alternatives throughout the organization to move quickly should the bullpen falter early.
Since he is out of options and because he would seemingly fit the Justin Masterson role of live righty arm who can spot start, I am rooting for Boof Bonser to have a big Spring. From there, I think the rest of it will have to sort itself out as the year goes on.