Teams shopping bullpen arms before Saturday’s non-waiver trading deadline continue to want top farm talent in return from potential suitors. As a result, the Red Sox may find that their own system can address their bullpen woes.
Ideally, the Red Sox would like to acquire a stable and proven bullpen arm over the weekend, but because relief pitching remains a hot commodity for contending teams, it appears Boston inevitably would have to overpay for a reliever’s services.
Red Sox fans need look no further than the 2007 deadline, when Boston sent outfielders David Murphy and Engel Beltre with left-hander Kason Gabbard to Texas in exchange for reliever Eric Gagne as an example of the dangers of overspending for bullpen help.
Sure, the end result was a World Series in October, but it was hardly thanks to Gagne, who posted a lackluster 2-2 record and 6.75 ERA in a Red Sox uniform.
Fortune favors the bold. The bold, however, may also favor misfortune. In the unpredictable frenzy that is the 48 hours leading up to July 31 for general managers, a gutsy trade can cripple a playoff run as fast as it can spark success. The same can be said for looking at alternative avenues — more specifically for the Red Sox, that avenue could be the one that runs toward Pawtucket, R.I.
Which brings us to the idea that the bullpen issues that have plagued the Red Sox of late could be solved from within. Maybe.
Michael Bowden performed admirably during his lone stint with the big club earlier this month. Although he was back in Pawtucket before he could bat an eyelash, Bowdoin tossed 2 1/3 scoreless innings with the Red Sox while his eyes developed tears.
The 23-year-old was moved to the bullpen with the PawSox earlier in July, as the Red Sox perhaps saw a potential big league solution in the right-hander. The result at the Triple-A level has been stellar. Bowden has posted a 2-0 record, with one save and a 2.16 ERA in 8 1/3 innings. As a reliever, he also has held opponents to a .207 batting average.
The main concern with Bowden is his inexperience, at both the major league level and out of the bullpen. After all, this is his first real experience out of the bullpen at any level (although he did make seven relief appearances for Boston last season), and he has just a 10 2/3-inning sample of relief work between Pawtucket and Boston for the Red Sox to ponder.
Although Bowden was unblemished in his brief major league stint this season, he allowed four of the 10 batters he faced to reach (three hits, one walk). To maintain a 0.00 ERA with a .333 opponent batting average and a .400 opponent on-base percentage would be a Houdini act of historic proportions for Bowden, and a situation the Red Sox would rather not encounter.
Another young pitcher the Red Sox may find effective past this weekend is Felix Doubront. The 22-year-old lefty served as Clay Buchholz’s spot replacement who can throw to home much stronger than he does to first or second.
Despite his fielding gaffes, Doubront has proven that he can hang tough at the highest level. He was thrown into the fire, starting in games filled with just about as much pressure as can be packed into June and July tilts.
Doubront’s first major league start came on June 18 when Manny Ramirez made his long-awaited return to Fenway Park as a member of the Dodgers. Doubront also made starts in Tampa Bay against the AL wild card-leading Rays and against the AL West-leading Rangers.
Doubront’s numbers with the Red Sox (1-2, 4.11 ERA in three starts) weren’t world beating, but they are solid.
Working deep into games has been a bit of a problem for Doubront, and he has yet to pitch out of the bullpen since signing as an international free agent with the Red Sox on July 12, 2004. In his three major league starts, however, Doubront has yet to allow an earned run in either the first or second inning.
His first-inning numbers are equally impressive over a seven-inning sampling with the PawSox, rendering a 1.29 ERA and a .130 opponents batting average. But Doubront did struggle to get going on those cold April and May nights in Portland, posting a 4.50 ERA in the first inning in eight starts with the Sea Dogs.
First-inning success may not translate to bullpen success, but it is something for Red Sox brass to chew on. Moving the lefty to the big league bullpen would be a drastic move, but as the Boston bullpen continues to struggle, Doubront’s .158 opponents batting average against lefties will become more and more enticing.
Another less sexy, but potentially viable arm from the farm that the Red Sox may need to call upon could be that of 27-year-old right-hander Robert Manuel. His numbers jump out on paper — 5-1 with a 1.34 ERA and eight saves for the PawSox. It took 10 games and 13 2/3 innings for an International League player to cross home with a run off Manuel.
Much like Bowden and Doubront, Manuel also saw action with the Red Sox earlier in July, appearing in five games out of the bullpen. Although he got off to a rocky start by allowing two runs in the ninth during the Red Sox’ 9-3 July 3 win over Baltimore, Manuel settled down to lower his ERA to 3.86 over seven innings by the time he was sent back to Pawtucket on July 15.
Furthering Manuel’s case is the fact that he held opponents to a stingy .200 batting average against, including holding lefties to a .167 clip at the major league level.
Getting a legitimate, proven bullpen arm acclimated to facing big league hitters is at the top of the list for general manager Theo Epstein and the Boston Red Sox. But teams must be keen to not dramatically overpay for a three-month rental, as nothing is guaranteed.
The trading deadline is a time of uncertainty and risk-taking. The continued success of a high-profile deadline acquisition can be as unpredictable as the success or failure of young arms taking the ball in pressure situations. The ground GMs walk upon during this time each year always seems to be littered with double-edged swords.
Depending on how Epstein feels out the market over the weekend, the Red Sox could wind up shipping off a Bowden, Doubront or Manuel. The Red Sox also could wind up with one or more of those names entrusted with a great deal of pressure late in the season, and perhaps the Nation will become very familiar with them, for better or for worse.
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