You could easily make a case that throughout the 2009 regular season, the Red Sox' bullpen was among the best in the game.
The Sox compiled a 3.80 bullpen ERA, second-lowest in the heavy-hitting AL in '09. Opposing hitters hit just .252 against the Boston 'pen, which thrived this season not just because of a dominating All-Star closer, but because of the depth that carried them on a daily basis from innings six through nine.
It wasn't all about Jonathan Papelbon. Even in a down year, their closer was one of the game's best with a 1.85 ERA and 38 saves, but more importantly, the Red Sox proved their strength in numbers this season.
The 'pen was stacked. They had Daniel Bard blowing hitters away, Billy Wagner bursting onto the scene in August, Takashi Saito showing up in Boston as a pleasant surprise, Hideki Okajima being the same reliable setup man he'd always been, Ramon Ramirez exceeding all expectations. Even Manny Delcarmen, often the shakiest member of the Boston bullpen, had flashes of brilliance in 2009.
But come next season, we haven't a clue who will be back in a Red Sox uniform.
Essentially, everyone's future is in doubt. General manager Theo Epstein loves low-risk contracts, especially with relief pitchers, and there are really no long-term commitments being made to anyone on the staff. They're taking it one season at a time.
Papelbon still has two years of service time left before he can become a free agent. The Sox can work out another contract with him, or take him to arbitration, or trade him.
Bard made a modest $400,000 in his rookie season. The Red Sox will work on another cheap deal to keep him around.
Wagner is likely headed out the door. He still wants to be a closer at the major league level, and the Red Sox don't appear likely to offer him that opportunity.
Saito's contract in Boston was a one-year deal, but it included a club option for 2010. That option wasn't picked up, but after his 2.43 ERA and 52 strikeouts this season, the Red Sox should definitely bring him back.
When Okajima came to the States along with Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2007, his deal in Boston was for two years, $2.5 million and an option for a third year. That third year is up, and the Sox' setup man is now on the verge of arbitration eligibility.
After trading for Ramirez last winter, the Red Sox re-signed him for a year and $441,000. They'll probably have to give him a raise now. Delcarmen, similarly, made a modest $476,000.
Out of the entire Red Sox bullpen, no one has a contract signed for 2010. The Sox have had one of the game's best staffs, but if they don't act soon, they'll be starting over from scratch next season.
Keeping Papelbon is a wise choice. The trade rumors surrounding him are probably all talk, and the Red Sox will eventually hammer out a deal to keep him around.
Keeping Bard will be easy — it's just about finding the right price. Saito will likely be around too.
Those three guys make up a solid nucleus. But the key to the Red Sox' success was having more than just a nucleus — they had six great pitchers who could be called upon for key outs whenever necessary. Fatigue wasn't an issue — if one guy wasn't able to take the mound, there were five others who could.
Okajima, Ramirez and Delcarmen will be three of the unheralded keys to the coming offseason. The Sox' efforts to re-sign the trio will tell a lot about how the 2010 season will unfold.
Middle relief isn't glamorous. It's not sexy. But it's a big reason why the Red Sox were a playoff team this past season, and if the Sox are smart, they'll do everything in their power to keep their deep, capable bullpen intact.