Editor's note: 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 setup relievers.
Every year in baseball, several teams struggle to find someone who can close down games on a consistent basis. Many are fortunate to have one viable candidate.
The Red Sox have three, two of whom — Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks — could form the most potent set of setup men in the game.
Boston had a series of difficult losses last season, the kind that can cause some fitful nights of sleep. Issues with the bullpen were a primary cause; the Red Sox were 22-26 in one-run games and 6-12 in extra-inning affairs (the 12 losses led all of baseball).
While Jonathan Papelbon, the last line of defense, received some of the criticism due to his career-high eight blown saves, he, as well as the dynamic Bard, were given an incredible amount of responsibility. Forced to pick up the slack for an unstable middle relief unit (the Sox had a team ERA of 4.83 in innings 4-6), they were utilized early, often and sometimes in situations that were not ideal.
Just as the middle relief was boosted by the addition of Dan Wheeler, having a third option in the event that Papelbon or Bard is a bit overused could be a tremendous luxury for Terry Francona.
As it is, Francona often relishes shutting the door long before he has to get to Papelbon.
"Bard is one of the better relievers in all of baseball," Francona said. "Sometimes it goes a little unnoticed just how important that setup guy is. Sometimes games are won or lost in the seventh or eighth."
Francona said that Papelbon has "something to prove with what everyone said about him this winter" but knows that alleviating some of the pressure is critical.
"We’re lucky to have three guys, at least three guys, that are capable of closing," Francona said.
One idea thrown around as a possible issue is the fact that all three late-inning guys are righties. Some of the best setup groups in history have had guys who can come at hitters from both sides. Last year, both Hideki Okajima and Manny Delcarmen — a righty but one whose changeup could baffle left-handed hitters — both struggled and it hurt the pen.
However, in Bard the Red Sox have someone who limited lefties to a .141 average and .462 OPS last season, and Jenks has always had slightly better numbers in such situations. Both can come in, regardless of whether it's Alex Rodriguez or Joe Mauer at the plate, and be just as potent.
When Papelbon struggled at times last year, there was the inevitable talk of Bard taking over his role. When Jenks was signed and rumors of a Papelbon trade surfaced this offseason, talk of a replacement down the road for the Boston closer only intensified. But that is, in fact, down the road. There are expectations to win every season in Boston, and the two-headed monster the team has in front of Papelbon gives those expectations a chance to be realized this year.
The Sox had two shutdown relievers last year. They should have three this year. It could be four if Andrew Miller continues to progress the way he has early on. Adding Miller to that mix, which would also add a lefty to the crew, could prove lethal.
If all else fails
In very limited late-game action last year, Felix Doubront showed he can handle the pressure. He is currently shut down for two weeks to rest his elbow. If that does the trick and there are any injuries at the back end of the pen later on, Doubront might get another look.
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