The Red Sox will break camp with 25 players heading north to Boston. We begin a daily look at each position on the club, from the projected starters to their backups. Our latest installment examines the middle relief corps.
Jonathan Papelbon received the bulk of the criticism for the Red Sox bullpen woes last year, but only because blown saves are what people remember. Realistically, the back end of Boston’s pen was hampered by two things.
One, the starters did not last as deep into games as the club would like, putting more pressure on the bullpen as a whole. Two, there just weren’t enough options on which Terry Francona could call to get the ball to Papelbon, and before him Daniel Bard. The bridge lacked stability from day one.
General manager Theo Epstein insisted all offseason that his No. 1 priority was to bolster the bullpen. The moves to bring in Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez got all the ink, but the bulk of the offseason transactions served to amplify the depth on the mound. Epstein has rebuilt the bridge, or at least brought several components into camp that might eventually add stability.
It remains to be seen who sticks with the club when it opens play April 1, but there is plenty of depth that should create a pretty good competition in March.
Because he was a closer and has plenty of the panache that goes with such a role, Bobby Jenks has drawn plenty of notoriety since coming to Boston. The move by Epstein to acquire Dan Wheeler may prove just as important. A consistent veteran who knows the American League East through and through, Wheeler will join with Tim Wakefield, Hideki Okajima, Scott Atchison and one of a handful of guys (Matt Albers or Andrew Miller are strong candidates), as the bridge to that power trio at the back end.
The 33-year-old Wheeler has thrown at least 64 games in six straight seasons, only one of which he finished with an ERA over 3.35. Three times in that span his WHIP has been below 1.000. He will be able to go against righties or lefties essentially from the fifth inning on.
Such versatility and dependability is what makes the veteran feel that the middle relievers can have a lasting impact on the club, picking up the slack for poor starts and taking pressure off the flamethrowers in the eighth and ninth.
“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.”
The back end of the bullpen gets all the attention when things don’t go well. It gets all the attention when it brings in a World Series-winning closer. However, Dan Wheeler and a bevy of potential middle relievers in camp may be the real reason the Red Sox bullpen is in better shape than it was at this time last year.
If he doesn’t make the club on Opening Day, it won’t be long before Miller is seen at Fenway Park. He has already impressed the staff with his work early in camp, including a seven-pitch, two-strikeout inning in his debut Monday.
If all else fails
One other name to keep an eye on is Jason Rice. He had 13 saves and a 2.85 ERA at Double-A Portland last year, striking out 71 in 60 innings. He has to learn to throw his breaking ball for strikes with greater consistency, but Rice throws hard.
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