Joel Hanrahan’s Struggles Far Less Concerning Because of Other Quality Arms Available at Back End of Red Sox Bullpen

Boston Red Sox pitcher Joel Hanrahan walks back to the dugout after being relieved by manager John Farrell in the fourth inning of a Grapefruit League game against the Minnesota Twins at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla. on Thursday, March 7, 2013. Hanrahan gave up four runs on four hits in one-third of an inning.John Farrell made it clear on Thursday, in case there was any doubt.

“He’s our closer,” Farrell said in regards to Joel Hanrahan, who suffered his first blown save as a member of the Red Sox on Wednesday.

Hanrahan entered Wednesday’s ballgame in the ninth inning with a two-run lead. When he left after recording just two outs on 31 pitches, the Orioles had come from behind to capture an 8-5 lead at a damp Fenway Park. It was hardly the kind of outing the Red Sox want to see out of their closer, and it marked the second straight hiccup for Hanrahan, who also surrendered two hits, including a home run, before finally nailing down Monday’s home opener.

We shouldn’t get too caught up in the brief struggles, though. Blowing a save is never a positive experience, especially when we’re talking about a stressful, tiring effort like Wednesday’s, but the Red Sox are in a much better position this season to withstand not having their closer on a particular night.

“With Andrew Bailey, with [Koji] Uehara, [Junichi] Tazawa, obviously [Andrew] Miller ready to go tonight. [Clayton] Mortensen is available. We’ve got a full compliment behind Alfredo [Aceves],” Farrell said when asked about Hanrahan’s availability for Thursday’s game. “So if in fact we need to stay away from Joel for a night just to give him some recovery time, we feel confident we can build back to a guy that’s had a lot of closing experience in the past.”

While Farrell was referencing one particular game, the overriding point holds true for any given game. The Red Sox have a surplus of quality arms in their bullpen, and they have pitchers with late-game experience. This isn’t to say the Sox could compensate for a struggling closer, as Hanrahan needs to be Boston’s anchor, but having someone like Bailey available to take over the closing duties if and when necessary is huge.

Just look at last season. When Aceves was asked to become the team’s closer in Bailey’s absence, it proved to be disastrous at times, and there really just weren’t any alternatives for then-manager Bobby Valentine. Now, the Red Sox’ back-end bullpen depth is a strength, so weathering a storm is a much more realistic task.

The focus, however, is on ensuring that no such storm comes, and that Hanrahan’s struggles are just a minor setback. Given Hanrahan’s history, there’s reason to believe that he’ll bounce back just fine.

“I think it points more toward aggressiveness. Any time you overthrow a little bit, you’re going to sacrifice some location for additional velocity,” Farrell said before Thursday’s game of Hanrahan’s blown save. “By no means would we ask Joel to try to throw with less velocity, but prioritizing location is really any pitcher’s goal going in, and recognizing that those ninth innings, there is a lot of adrenaline to harness. He’s had a lot of success at doing that. [Wednesday] unfortunately was a game that got away from him.”

Hanrahan is a two-time All-Star, so he knows a thing or two about closing out games. The biggest skeptics will point to the hurler’s new setting, and insist that the right-hander isn’t cut out for the big stage. That could eventually be valid, as it’s obvious the pressure is much greater in Boston than it is in Pittsburgh, but we shouldn’t be ready to make that statement just yet. Farrell certainly isn’t, although he does realize there are bound to be some growing pains early on.

“I still think the ninth inning presents such a unique environment or atmosphere in and of itself,” Farrell said. “I think as much as coming into Boston, and I don’t want to say that’s the reason for it, but he’s facing hitters he hasn’t seen for quite a while, and the way lineups are constructed here versus that pitcher or pinch hitter showing up late in a game where he’s been on the bench all night. It’s a little bit of a different animal; the lineups in the American League.”

The Red Sox’ bullpen has the potential to be among the American League’s elite this season. Joel Hanrahan is a huge reason why, but he’s not the only reason. The unit’s overall depth and its ability to pick up the slack of others when necessary are as important as anything.

Have a question for Ricky Doyle? Send it to him via Twitter at @TheRickyDoyle or send it here

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