Junichi Tazawa Must Return to Early-Season Form, Regain Status As Trusted Member of Red Sox’ Bullpen

Junichi TazawaSee you later, regular season. Hello, playoffs.

And hello, playoff mailbag.

The Red Sox finished up their regular-season slate Sunday. Now, it’s time for Boston to embark on its first playoff run since 2009. The Red Sox will kick off their ALDS series against the wild-card winner — which is to be determined — at Fenway Park on Friday. The Sox enter the postseason with the AL’s best record and top seed.

Some questions need to be answered before Boston starts its playoff run, though. The questions center on the club’s ALDS roster, which has yet to be finalized. There aren’t expected to be any huge surprises, but each of the 25 roster spots is important, so John Farrell and Co. will surely spend a lot of time figuring out which formula gives them the best chance to succeed in October.

And while Red Sox fans certainly hope that it’s a while before we’re talking about next season at length, there were still some questions regarding the upcoming offseason as well. All of the madness can be found below.

What do you think Junichi Tazawa’s role will be in the postseason? Do you think he’ll set up for Koji Uehara, or do you think that role will go to Craig Breslow?
— Michael Ricciuti

The bullpen is the Red Sox’ biggest weakness right now, and it’s hard to be too confident in anyone besides Koji Uehara and Craig Breslow. That being said, you can’t get by with a two-man bullpen, even though the ideal scenario is for the starters to last until at least the seventh inning every game.

I wouldn’t expect Junichi Tazawa’s role to change too much. It doesn’t seem that Farrell has lost much confidence in the right-hander, so matchups will presumably dictate how Tazawa and Breslow are used during the seventh and eighth innings. It wouldn’t shock me to see Tazawa pitch the eighth inning one night, and then see Breslow work the eighth inning the following game.

In a vacuum, however, Breslow is the better high-leverage option right now. He has posted a 0.57 ERA (two earned runs in 31 2/3 innings) since July 9, and he hasn’t allowed a run in his last 11 outings (a span of 11 innings). Tazawa, meanwhile, owns a 6.75 ERA (eight earned runs in 10 2/3 innings) in 14 appearances since Aug. 20, and his splitter isn’t nearly as unhittable as it seemed earlier this season.

Breslow has also shown an impressive ability to retire both lefties and righties this year. Righties entered Sunday’s game hitting .202 (24-for-119) with a .570 OPS against Breslow, while lefties were hitting .258 (24-for-93) with a .719 OPS. In other words, Breslow is far more than a left-on-left specialist.

One thing we likely won’t see from Tazawa this postseason is him pitching more than one inning on a given night. Farrell brought Tazawa back out for the eighth inning Saturday after the right-hander needed just eight pitches to record a perfect seventh inning, and things quickly snowballed. The skipper said after the game that Tazawa will likely be limited to one inning going forward, as his splitter just wasn’t as effective in his second inning of work.

Overall, Tazawa has been an important piece of the Red Sox’ bullpen this season, and his ability to strike hitters out (9.5 strikeouts per nine innings) makes him a valuable asset. Breslow looks like the better go-to option in a pinch, but both relievers need to be effective, or else the Red Sox could be in some serious trouble.

Why are the Red Sox considering putting Jackie Bradley Jr. on the postseason roster?
— Joe Pati

Health.

There really hasn’t been much indication that the Red Sox are strongly considering Jackie Bradley Jr. And if you believe that the Red Sox will go with 11 pitchers, Bradley will likely be the odd man out, as Quintin Berry’s baserunning prowess makes him the preferable choice among the two outfielders. But if the Red Sox consider adding Bradley, it’ll be because of concerns about the health of Jacoby Ellsbury and/or Shane Victorino.

Ellsbury is just coming back from a foot injury, and Victorino, who has been banged up all year, is dealing with a thumb issue. The Red Sox might ultimately decide that another outfielder — one used for more than just pinch-running situations — is a better use of a roster spot than a reliever who can’t really be trusted with the game on the line.

For the record, I think that the Red Sox should carry both Bradley and Berry while going with 10 pitchers.

Re-sign Napoli, Salty, Gomes, Drew, Carp, Peavy, Dempster?
— Kyle Bakanosky

Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp, Jake Peavy and Ryan Dempster are all under team control for 2014. That leaves Mike Napoli, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew as talking points from your list.

I think that the Red Sox will and should make an effort to re-sign both Napoli and Saltalamacchia. I’d be surprised if they re-signed Drew.

Napoli’s strikeout rate has been frustrating at times, but the Red Sox knew what they were getting into when they signed the slugger, and it’s hard to complain about his overall body of work this season. There’s also a very thin first base market, and Boston doesn’t have much first base depth in the system, so my guess is that the Red Sox will consider re-signing Napoli while also checking out Cuban product Jose Dariel Abreu. Abreu is an intriguing option, but Napoli is a known commodity who already fits in well within the Red Sox’ clubhouse. If all else fails, Mike Carp serves as a very respectable Plan C.

Catchers typically take longer to develop than most players, and Saltalamacchia has proven a lot in his age 28 season. The Red Sox would be wise to lock him up, even though his stock continues to skyrocket. Catcher is one area that you can’t afford to install a revolving door, and Salty has gained the trust of Boston’s pitching staff while also providing above-average offensive production at the position.

Drew has been excellent this season, particularly defensively, but Xander Bogaerts should be ready to shoulder the load in 2014.

What do the Red Sox plan to do with Ryan Lavarnway in the future? He certainly has looked far more comfortable at the plate in his brief time this season — as compared to his exposure in 2012. The problem is that he’s way back on the depth chart at his position. I could see the Red Sox trying him out at first base and just letting him be a good hitter with 25-30 home run potential. But that job could also go to Mike Carp should the Sox not re-sign Mike Napoli. Personally, I think he could be a good bat in future lineups. I just don’t know where they’d put him. Any thoughts?
–Brian, Sandwich

It’s obvious, but Ryan Lavarnway’s future in Boston is directly tied to Saltalamacchia’s.

If the Red Sox re-sign Saltalamacchia — which I think they’ll try to do — Lavarnway won’t really have a chance to become anything more than a backup. That role could earn him a decent chunk of playing time eventually, but David Ross is also under contract for 2014, so it’s likely that Lavarnway would be relegated to the minors for another season. The problem with that is that Lavarnway is already 26 years old.

If the Red Sox don’t re-sign Saltalamacchia — which is also possible given how much his price tag has climbed over the last few months — Lavarnway could end up being Boston’s starting catcher in 2014.

My guess is that Salty stays, meaning that we could be looking at another year of unpredictability for Lavarnway. I wouldn’t expect a move to first base, though, as the Red Sox have spent a lot of time working to improve his defense behind the plate.

Before this season, I was unsure if Lavarnway would ever pan out. I’m more confident in his ability now, but, like you said, it comes down to opportunity. I’m not sure that he’ll get it in Boston as long as Saltalamacchia is around.

What would you think of Tim Wakefield throwing out the first knuckleball of a Pirates-Red Sox World Series?
— Daniel Champagne

I think it would be pretty friggin’ sweet. Unless…

Will there be a Red Sox-Dodgers World Series? If so, what are the chances of the Red Sox winning?
–Anthony, New York

It’s prediction time, huh?

I’ll say this. While I think a Red Sox-Dodgers World Series would be awesome in terms of storylines and all that good stuff, I still have doubts about the whole thing coming to fruition. And those doubts stem from concerns about whether the Dodgers can emerge from the National League.

Los Angeles is extremely talented, and the Dodgers’ rotation — spearheaded by the 1-2 punch of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke — is going to be difficult to take down. But I’ll need to see some mental toughness in the postseason before I’m completely sold on L.A. For now, I still like the battle-tested Cardinals, even though Allen Craig’s injury will be difficult for St. Louis to overcome.

In the American League, I wouldn’t bet against Boston. While the Tigers’ pitching staff poses a tough matchup, I’ve seen too much from the Red Sox this season for me to pick against them.

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

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