Red Sox’ 2014 Closer Role Could Belong to Young Hurler Already Holding Down Boston’s Bullpen


August 12, 2013

Brandon WorkmanThe trade deadline is a distant memory, and September call-ups will soon become the topic of conversation. All the while, the mailbag rolls on.

The Red Sox are in the midst of a lengthy road trip, and their last stop wasn’t too pleasant, as the red-hot Royals took three of four from Boston over the weekend. Perhaps the Red Sox just ran into a buzz saw or perhaps some real weaknesses are coming to light.

The Red Sox started their season-long 11-game road trip by taking two of three from the lowly Astros. It wasn’t easy, though, and the series against the Royals did nothing to boost any lost confidence throughout Red Sox Nation.

But let’s not panic. There’s a lot of baseball to be played, and the Red Sox have shown plenty of resilience this season. Plus, the Rays have stumbled as well, so Boston is still in great shape. If you do need to get something off your chest, however, the mailbag is here to listen.

Let’s have a look at this week’s bag o’ mail.

Do you think Koji Uehara can withstand the demands of being a closer for an entire season and the postseason?
— Jacob Miller

The Red Sox better hope so.

It?s a difficult situation to predict because Koji Uehara is going to be navigating some uncharted waters, but the right-hander should be just fine. If there?s one thing I’ve learned this season, it?s that betting against Uehara isn?t a wise decision.

Uehara has never been a closer in the middle of a pennant race, and his small postseason sample size (five earned runs in 2 1/3 innings) is unimpressive. He?ll also set career highs for appearances and innings pitched soon, as he?ll enter Tuesday?s action with 53 1/3 innings pitched over 54 appearances, whereas his single-season highs as a reliever are 65 innings in 65 appearances back in 2011.

In many ways, the odds are stacked against Uehara. The situation is even dicier because he?s 38 years old. But Uehara has answered the bell time and time again this season, and his overall effectiveness is reason enough for a little bit of blind faith.

Among American League relievers, Uehara is near the top of a number of statistical categories, and he has only gotten better since assuming the closer?s role. Uehara has pitched 16 straight scoreless innings dating back to July 9, which is the third-longest active streak in the AL. Of the last 52 batters he has faced over his last 14 games, only six have reached base.

Uehara is 1-0 with a 1.26 ERA, 22 strikeouts, one walk and a .140 (7-for-50) opponent average in save situations this season. He appears to have both the mental makeup and physical tools necessary to succeed in such a role — even if a setup role remains more ideal.

I?m not absolutely, positively, 100 percent confident about how things will shake out, and I think John Farrell will really need to monitor Uehara?s status down the stretch. But I?m also not betting against the wily veteran.

Do you think any of the young pitchers that the Red Sox have in the minors will be groomed into a closer a la Jonathan Papelbon? That seems to be a potential need next season.
–Vincent C., Dallas, Texas

This seems like a distant thought given what?s still left to unfold this season, but you?re right. It?s going to be very interesting to see what Ben Cherington cooks up for a 2014 bullpen.

The Red Sox could obviously look externally for a closer this offseason, but we?ve seen that doing so is no sure thing, and there are two pitchers already in the organization who stand out as potential closer candidates for 2014.

First, we have Rubby De La Rosa, who I?ve received multiple mailbag questions about this season. The reasons behind him potentially becoming a closer are obvious. He has a fastball reaching the high 90s and his stuff is absolutely electric, which should translate well into the later innings. The comparison I keep hearing is Neftali Feliz — who had two excellent seasons as Texas’ closer — and I don?t think it?s too far-fetched, although Feliz?s health issues since converting back to a starter are somewhat concerning.

Brandon Workman is the other pitcher who I think could become a very good closer if the Red Sox chose to go in that direction with him. He has shown fantastic poise in his brief major league stint, with his latest display coming Saturday, when he minimized the damage upon being thrust into a tight spot on the road. The mental component is usually what separates closers from other pitchers, and I think that Workman has what it takes in that department. Plus, Workman has a plus-fastball and throws strikes — two other important ingredients.

?He?s always been grossly underappreciated,? one evaluator told of Workman back in June. ?He may well contribute this year, and I wouldn?t be stunned if he became a [Jonathan] Papelbon someday. He can start — he?s got the physicality and the mix — but he?s got the mentality to be a force as a closer.?

It?ll be interesting to see what the Red Sox do with De La Rosa and Workman in 2014. They were both starters in the minors, but they?ll be working out of the bullpen down the stretch this season and Boston?s rotation figures to be crowded next year. Perhaps one will grab hold of the closer?s job.

Who’s the greatest living ball player?
–Eric Bam

I don?t know. Give me Willie Mays, I guess. If we?re going active players, I?ll take Miguel Cabrera because I?m still amazed at some of the things he does offensively. He?s the model of consistency.

Why is Shane Victorino batting right-handed against righties?
— Neil Axelrod

The prevailing thought is that Shane Victorino is a bit banged up, and that batting right-handed is simply more comfortable for him right now, although he hasn?t admitted such.

Victorino was actually asked this question after a good effort in the final game of the Red Sox? most recent homestand, and he quickly cut off a fellow reporter, saying that he wasn’t going to talk about it.

I?ll go with the idea that it?s simply more comfortable for Victorino given his current physical state, but again, that?s mostly speculation.

Why is Mike Napoli in the lineup?
— William Michael Pray

The Red Sox are showing a ton of patience with Mike Napoli, and it?s a product of two things. There isn?t anyone — beyond Mike Carp — really pressing him for playing time, and he showed flashes of being a very good middle-of-the-order presence earlier this season, which gives the Red Sox hope that he?ll find his stride.

Napoli has been pretty bad, though, and that?s putting it lightly. It?s encouraging to see the Red Sox finally try some things, like moving him down in the order, but I think they really ought to cut back on his playing time if things don?t straighten themselves out.

Napoli has the power. And when he gets hot, he gets hot. Right now, he?s ice cold, though, and I wouldn?t mind seeing more of Carp down the stretch.

When will we see Red Sox prospect Xander Bogaerts come up along with Will Middlebrooks?
— Fran Irish

My guess is Sept. 1, when rosters expand.

I was among those who wanted to see the Red Sox give Xander Bogaerts a shot before Will Middlebrooks was recalled. I?m really anxious to see what Bogaerts could do on this team, and I think he?d make an immediate impact. Middlebrooks has looked improved through his first two games back, though, and that could steer the Red Sox away from going with Bogaerts any sooner than Sept. 1.

Why don’t you try writing about the Red Sox instead of attempting to stir controversy? Management obviously thought Will Middlebrooks was the best option at this time. Leave it at that. Xander Boegarts will get his chance when he is ready to be promoted. Look at the crap you writers whipped up against Stephen Drew.
–Lenny Jennings, Natick

It?s a 162-game season. Chalking everything up to ?it is what it is? is boring, right?

Seriously, though, Lenny is clearly referring to this, in which — like I said in the previous answer — I wrote that Bogaerts should be given a shot over Middlebrooks. It?s simply one man?s opinion, though, and I don?t see how that?s stirring up controversy.

It?s been a legitimate debate for some time, and I even said that going with Middlebrooks over a Brock Holt/Brandon Snyder platoon is a step in the right direction. I just didn?t think it was the best step.

(And for the record, I?ve been a supporter of Stephen Drew since Day 1. But I won?t hold that against you.)

If the Red Sox do not re-sign Jacoby Ellsbury in the offseason, do you think they could possibly move Shane Victorino to center field, Daniel Nava to right and Jackie Bradley Jr. to left?
–Alex, Nashua, N.H.

If we?re assembling a 2014 outfield with those three guys, the Red Sox should go with Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field, Daniel Nava in left field and Shane Victorino in right field. Bradley is a natural center fielder, Nava is better-equipped for left field and Victorino has the range and arm necessary to handle the difficult right field at Fenway Park.

Have a question for Ricky Doyle? Send it to him via Twitter at @TheRickyDoyle or send it here.

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