The sagas surrounding Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Derek Jeter and Jayson Werth are what some baseball observers will remember about the 2010-11 offseason. Many others will recall the offseason by an incredible market for relievers, created by an insatiable need for bullpen help league-wide.
The precedent is for an all-out bid for relief. The four playoff teams in the American League last year ranked one through four in bullpen ERA. In the National League, two of the top three bullpen ERAs belonged to playoff teams, including the eventual World Series champs in San Francisco.
The AL East was a battleground for those seeking improvements for the relief corps. The Red Sox obviously needed upgrades, as did the rival New York Yankees, to a much lesser degree. Tampa Bay, due to departures in its bullpen, was forced to undergo a near-complete reconstruction. Baltimore signed former Toronto closer Kevin Gregg while the Blue Jays brought in former Pirates closer Octavio Dotel. All five teams were linked to several other names on the market.
The dust has yet to settle, as a couple dozen relievers remain free agents, including closer-type Jon Rauch. But with the Yankees signing Rafael Soriano as an expensive setup man and the Orioles adding Gregg in the past week, the AL East makeovers are largely complete.
So, who came out on top? Who has the best bullpen in the best division in baseball?
There are “ifs” all over the place, but for now a slight edge goes to the Red Sox, who added a pair of proven late-inning veterans in Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler, re-signed Hideki Okajima and Scott Atchison and assembled a crew of available arms that will provide depth at the minor-league level. Relief for the relief, if they need it.
With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, more changes are to come. For now, here is an early look at the divisional bullpen rankings.
1) Boston ? The aforementioned “ifs” abound with this bunch, but there is reason to believe that they will be realized. Closer Jonathan Papelbon should be primed and ready to deliver in his contract year and with two replacement candidates breathing down his neck. Okajima showed late last season that when healthy, he still has something to offer. Wheeler will be a stabilizing factor and long men Atchison and Tim Wakefield will have more defined roles in 2011 — Wakefield himself said that will help. Perhaps no team in baseball has as much firepower on the back end as the Sox do with the trio of Papelbon, Jenks and Daniel Bard. Additionally, the starting rotation figures to make the job easier than it will be for other bullpens by lasting deep into games.
2) New York ? It starts with Mariano Rivera. The Yankees, whose pen ranked second in the AL last year with a .230 opponents? batting average, could fill the rest of the bullpen with Triple-A castoffs and still look OK half the time due to their superstar closer. However, they have wrestled for a few seasons with finding a consistent setup man, an issue that may be remedied with the addition of Soriano. Provided no other moves are made in New York, Joba Chamberlain, who quietly had a very good stretch run in 2010, and Dave Robertson could provide some quality middle relief or spot setup duty. Damaso Marte and Boone Logan are capable left-handed options for manager Joe Girardi.
3) Toronto ? John Farrell?s team lost its closer in Gregg and its best reliever in Scott Downs, but returns a pretty capable crew. While the 37-year-old Dotel won?t light the world on fire, he?ll have the support of a trio of quality right-handers (Jason Frasor, Casey Janssen and Shawn Camp), who were a collective 12-9 with a 3.43 ERA and six saves last year. Carlos Villanueva, who had an electric 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings with Milwaukee, is another righty with the ability to get a big K if needed. If the Jays can get lefty Jesse Carlson to look a bit more like he did in his rookie season in 2008, when he was 7-2 with a 2.25 ERA in 69 games, they will survive the loss of Downs just fine.
4) Baltimore ? Gregg is a nice addition for a club that has rotated closers quite a bit over the years. Ten different men have led the team in saves over the past 14 seasons and last year?s leader, Alfredo Simon, may only top the Dominican Penal League this season. But Gregg is not guaranteed the job. He will fight with Koji Uehara for the right to save games. Uehara was a revelation in 2010. He saved 13 games down the stretch and finish with a 2.86 ERA and a remarkable 55 strikeouts against just five walks in 44 innings. There will be some faith put in injury-prone guys like Mike Gonzalez and Jeremy Accardo to get some outs, which leaves a slight degree of uncertainty in the middle and late innings. Gonzalez will have to be good to account for the loss of fellow lefties Will Ohman and, to a lesser degree, Mark Hendrickson.
5) Tampa Bay ? Do not count out manager Joe Maddon in finding a way to piece things together. As it stands today, he will be working with several unknowns. The Rays lost their All-Star closer, their standout setup man and four others who got big outs at one time or another in 2010. So far, all that is in their place is Joel Peralta, Kyle Farnsworth and Adam Miller. One of the first two might get a chance to close. It is a wait-and-see approach for the Rays? pen.
Which AL East team has the best bullpen? Leave your thoughts below.