Jonathan Papelbon retaining the rights to the closing role next summer may be an ongoing hot stove topic this winter, but getting the Red Sox to Papelbon with a lead will be equally important. So which hurler has the stuff to obtain pre-Pap duties in 2010?
The decision on the set-up role won't an an easy one for manager Terry Francona since the Red Sox have a plethora of arms from which to chose. Making his decision slightly less difficult is the fact that the club will likely let free agent Takashi Saito sign elsewhere this offseason. Saito was arguably the most consistent and reliable reliever last season, but his age and price tag appear to be too much for the Red Sox to invite back to the Hub.
With Saito all but gone, that leaves Daniel Bard, Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez as the club's returning righty bullpen men who have the chance to take over the set-up role. Junichi Tazawa got a taste of the MLB in his first year in the States, but his near future is as a long reliever and spot starter.
Scratch lefty specialist Hideki Okajima off the list as well. Okajima is better suited to work the seventh frame and specific situations.
Ramirez was strong as the team's set-up man for the majority of the 2009 campaign before his decline in the final months. Ram-Ram went from getting the ball in the seventh or eighth innings to taking the ball in the sixth inning, so he — like Delcarmen – has a lot to prove in spring training and April.
That leaves Bard. Although he appears to be taking the set-up role by process of elimination, he is the man to take over as Papelbon's prelude. The club looked confident in handing the seventh and eighth innings to Bard as the season progressed in 2009, so there's no doubt that Bard deserves this role out of the gate next spring.
The team's 2006 first-rounder out of North Carolina entered the MLB in May with an effortless yet lethal fastball that flirted with triple digits each time he snapped one into the catcher's mitt. Setting up his heat was a slurve and a slider — a pitch that developed along the way – and he was unhittable when both his heat and slider were on. Bard owned a six-game streak in September when he had five holds and a win over the span of two weeks. While he finished the season with a 3.65 ERA, he owned a team-best 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
With Bard's arsenal of pitches, his youth, and his confidence gained from this past summer, the Red Sox can rely on him to come out of the 'pen to serve up an easy ninth frame for Papelbon.