Dan Wheeler Proved Worth as Red Sox Rival, Prepared to Play Key Role in Bullpen Revival

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Dan Wheeler is in his first days of Red Sox camp, but his adjustment period will be short. In a lot of ways, he remains in his element, having grown up a fan of the team in Rhode Island and being a seven-year veteran of the American League East.

Similarly, Wheeler expects to be a key component to a bullpen that could do great things, as was the case last year in Tampa Bay.

The Rays? bullpen was the best in the AL, leading the club to its second division crown in three years. In fact, it was the bullpen that shined when Tampa Bay won its first division title in 2008, knocking off the Red Sox in a memorable seven-game AL Championship Series. In between, in 2009, the club had some issues holding leads, and consequently finished third.

Wheeler sees the 2011 Red Sox as having one of those premier units.

“From year to year, bullpens, it changes,” Wheeler said Monday in Fort Myers. “There?s a good core nucleus here and I think there?s been some key additions. There?s no reason to think that we can?t do the same thing [that we did in Tampa] here right now.”

Amid the good and the bad of the Rays? bullpen the last three years, Wheeler was a rock. He had an ERA between 3.12 and 3.35 and appeared in at least 64 games each of the three seasons. It is that steadiness that appealed to Boston when it looked to rebuild a bullpen that, like the ?09 Rays, was a bit of an issue last season.

Manager Terry Francona said he was “thrilled” to get another arm he can trust.

“Veteran guy that can throw an inning or multiple,” Francona said. “He doesn?t shy away from the big innings. He?s been through the American League East with Tampa and all that brings. Standup guy, great teammate. I think we?re really excited.”

Wheeler was among the first of the many new relievers brought into the mix this offseason. He signed with the Red Sox on Dec. 18. Since then, he has been impressed with the many moves the organization has made to fill spots around him.

One thing he learned in Tampa Bay, and at Houston before that, is that having many options in the pen is crucial.

“I think it?s important for the health of the bullpen,” he said. “I think we need to have multiple guys that can go out there and get the job done and that?s just going to make us stronger throughout the course of the year. It?s a long year, six months, hopefully seven months. We want to be at our best in October.”

As for his role with the Red Sox, Wheeler doesn?t expect it to change much. As he said Monday, he?s “ready to go” anytime after the fifth inning. Tampa Bay used him more against right-handed batters last year than normal, although he had success against both sides.

Francona said that the way Wheeler was utilized in 2010 will have no bearing on how or when his number is called for Boston. It was likely more of a case of Rays manager Joe Maddon mixing and matching, as he is known to do at a high rate.

“We certainly don?t want him to just be pitching against right-handers because he has the ability to get out both,” Francona said. “We didn?t just get him to be a right-handed specialist, for sure.”

The Sox skipper ought to know. He made a point Monday of talking about Wheeler?s deceptive delivery and how it seemed to flummox Red Sox hitters over the years. First, he thought it was Mike Lowell who had his problems against Wheeler. Then he thought again and figured it was Kevin Youkilis who came back to the dugout cursing. Realistically, Francona could?ve picked anyone.

Lowell was 3-for-21 (.143) against Wheeler. J.D. Drew is 1-for-11 (.091). Jason Varitek is only slightly better, at 2-for-11 (.182). David Ortiz has two hits in 10 at-bats. Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jed Lowrie, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Darnell McDonald and Ryan Kalish are a combined 0-for-19 off Wheeler.

The Red Sox knew what they were getting with Wheeler. The steady 33-year-old right-hander should have no issues fulfilling expectations.

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