Red Sox Have Decisions to Make About Which Bullpen Arms They’ll Turn to for Outs

Red Sox Have Decisions to Make About Which Bullpen Arms They'll Turn to for Outs Nestled amid a handful of moves announced by the Red Sox last week was one that came across almost as a footnote. While picking up the option on David Ortiz and declining the option on Bill Hall, the club offered up an “Oh, by the way” note on retaining Scott Atchison.

Clearly journeyman middle relievers are not attractive when compared to guys who get nicknames like “Big Papi.” Just the way it goes. However, when your general manager’s top priority of the winter, at least in his words, is fixing the bullpen, then such a move is not without allure.

The decision was a no-brainer. The Sox only have to pay Atchison a shade over the minimum salary in 2011, and with the way he pitched last season picking up such an option was just a formality. That’s another reason why it was hardly even noticeable.

The 34-year-old, who had a 2.51 ERA in a 24-game stretch that cut through the heart of the season, will be a remarkable bargain if he pitches like that again. The question is, will that production, plus the expected contributions of Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard, be enough to turn things around in a bullpen that ranked 12th in the American League with a 4.24 ERA.

Currently, the one unit which caused more headaches than any other for the Red Sox in 2010 is rather unsettled. Of course, that’s the nature of bullpens. They can change dramatically from year to year.

Also, many of the moves Boston makes to fix its relief corps will not be made until later in the offseason.

Unless we just hand Scott Downs a Red Sox uniform and assume he will be a part of the makeup, as has been rumored since July, we can only speculate on what Boston has at its disposal beyond the aforementioned threesome.

We will know a bit more about the picture once Dec. 2 rolls around. That’s the last day that teams can offer contracts to arbitration eligible players, as is the case with Hideki Okajima. The 34-year-old lefty continued to see his effectiveness nosedive this year and could be a candidate to be non-tendered. He made $2.75 million last year.

Okajima’s 1.32 ERA over his final 16 appearances may have spared him a job with Boston, but we will have to wait and see. Even if he is tendered an offer and returns to the Red Sox for a fifth season Okajima has done nothing to increase Terry Francona‘s confidence in late-game situations.

When he was unable to land Downs or any other relievers at the trade deadline last year, Epstein insisted that the club would audition in-house options such as Felix Doubront and Michael Bowden, both of whom were converted from starter to reliever at Triple-A Pawtucket before being brought to the majors.

Unfortunately, when forecasting the back end of the bullpen for 2011, it’s difficult to see either being much help. Doubront has a very bright future but the club still sees him as a starter and may not want to tinker anymore with that development; the lefty saw his season come to an early end due to a pectoral strain suffered at the tail end of his nine relief appearances.

Bowden, meanwhile, did not do much to impress in 14 games as a reliever, allowing 20 hits and four walks in 15 1/3 innings. He’s 24, has promise, but likely won’t be in when the game is on the line in 2011.

Theo Epstein recently said that he had hoped that someone would step up and be able to get outs in front of Bard and Papelbon this year, but nobody ever did. This offseason will involve that very same mission, with names like Downs, Okajima (perhaps) and, because of a move nobody noticed, Atchison getting into the mix.

Each day of November, we will explore a different issue facing the Red Sox this offseason.

Nov. 8: Will Josh Beckett rebound in 2011?

Nov. 10: Which players on other teams might the Red Sox target as the trade deadline approaches?

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