Red Sox Bullpen Preview 2015: Can Koji Uehara Still Dominate At Age 40?

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Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara

Photo via Koji Uehara closes out a game for the Boston Red Sox.


Editor’s note: Red Sox pitchers and catchers report to spring training Friday. NESN.com will analyze Boston’s roster in four installments (outfield, infield, bullpen, starting rotation) in the days leading up to the players’ arrival.

The Boston Red Sox’s bullpen wasn’t a huge issue in 2014.

While Boston’s ‘pen wasn’t exactly lights-out last season, it’s hard to pin too much blame on the unit for the Red Sox’s overall struggles. Other areas of the club were far more responsible for Boston’s demise. In fact, the Red Sox’s bullpen actually was pretty good.

That said, the importance of a good bullpen perhaps is at an all-time high. Both of last season’s World Series representatives — the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants — had excellent bullpens, which some teams, including the New York Yankees, have taken into consideration while building their own 2015 rosters.

The Red Sox haven’t made many changes to their relief corps. Instead, they prioritized re-signing closer Koji Uehara, who inked a two-year, $18 million contract back in October.

What does the conservative approach mean for this year’s Red Sox bullpen?

Whose jobs to lose?
Closer: Koji Uehara
Others: Edward Mujica, Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, Anthony Varvaro, Robbie Ross, Alexi Ogando

Uehara will retain the keys to the ninth inning despite a late August/early September hiccup that saw the right-hander surrender 10 earned runs on 14 hits (four homers) over a six-appearance stretch spanning 4 2/3 innings. He’ll turn 40 at the beginning of April, but the Red Sox are confident in his ability to be the dominant closer he was for the better part of two seasons before last year’s woes.

Junichi Tazawa and Edward Mujica are in line to be Boston’s primary setup men, with Mujica likely serving as the “de facto” closer if, for whatever reason, Uehara loses his stranglehold on the ninth inning. Tazawa again was solid last season, while Mujica overcame a shaky start to finish the season strong.

Craig Breslow had a disastrous 2014 campaign. He posted a 5.96 ERA and 1.86 WHIP in 54 1/3 innings. The left-hander finished the season with back-to-back appearances in which he allowed seven runs (six earned) on seven hits without recording a single out.

This offseason’s free-agent market was thin on left-handed relievers, though, so the Red Sox brought back Breslow in the hopes that the 34-year-old can return to being one of the club’s most reliable arms. After all, Breslow started off slow physically last season following a heavy workload amid the Red Sox’s 2013 World Series run.

Anthony Varvaro (acquired from the Atlanta Braves), Robbie Ross (acquired from the Texas Rangers) and Alexi Ogando (signed as a free agent) were acquired this offseason. All three likely will break camp with Boston, as each provides a unique skill set that should make the unit better collectively.

Varvaro, a right-hander who’s tough on lefties, is coming off back-to-back solid seasons with the Braves. His walk rate dropped and his strikeout rate rose last season, meaning he’s trending in the right direction, though one should note he’s 30 years old and was pitching in the National League.

Ross, a left-hander who’s tough on righties, was one of Texas’ most reliable relievers in 2012 and 2013 before a failed starting experiment doomed his 2014 season. He’s still only 25, so his ceiling as a reliever is enough to justify trading Anthony Ranaudo to obtain his services.

Ogando, a 31-year-old right-hander with a history of arm issues, was an All-Star in 2011. While it’s possible he could crash and burn given his injury woes, Ogando was worth taking a flier on based on his past success as both a reliever and a starter.

The additions of Varvaro, Ross and Ogando likely burst the bubbles of Brandon Workman, Tommy Layne and one other hurler.

In the mix
Brandon Workman, Tommy Layne, Steven Wright, Dana Eveland, Heath Hembree, Edwin Escobar, Zeke Spruill, Dalier Hinojosa, Noe Ramirez, Robby Scott, Matt Barnes

Workman, who said recently he prefers to be a starter, was primed to lock down a spot in Boston’s bullpen until the team acquired both Ross and Ogando in late January. Now, Workman likely will begin the season as a reliever at Triple-A Pawtucket and be called upon at the first sign of trouble.

Tommy Layne was excellent last season after the Red Sox traded fellow left-handed reliever Andrew Miller. He posted a 0.95 ERA in 30 appearances spanning 19 innings and appeared to have an inside track on a major league role this season. He, like Workman, will be a phone call away. And given Breslow’s 2014 struggles, the southpaw should keep his phone on.

Steven Wright, a 30-year-old knuckleballer, can wear any number of hats for the organization. Expect him to make a few round-trips on I-95.

Dana Eveland is a 31-year-old journeyman who will provide left-handed organizational depth.

Heath Hembree, who was acquired in the Jake Peavy trade, is a big, hard-throwing right-hander with closing experience in the minors. The 26-year-old made six appearances with Boston last season and absolutely is on the radar, mostly because of his strikeout ability (11.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 221 minor league relief appearances).

Edwin Escobar, also acquired in the Peavy deal, could start the season in Pawtucket’s rotation depending on how the dominoes fall at Triple-A. The lefty was called up last season as a reliever, so a 2015 call-up is in play for the 22-year-old.

Zeke Spruill, acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in December, made 12 major league appearances with his former club. The 25-year-old is a former second-round pick looking to use a change of scenery to his advantage. He posted a 6.04 ERA in 28 appearances (11 starts) at Triple-A last season.

Dalier Hinojosa is a 29-year-old Cuban defector entering his second season with the organization. He had mixed results in Year 1, but his $4 million signing bonus suggests the Red Sox see potential in the 29-year-old right-hander.

Noe Ramirez participated in the Red Sox’s 2014 rookie camp but never advanced beyond Double-A last season. The 25-year-old is positioned to make the jump to Triple-A this season, and his success at the next level will dictate how seriously he’s considered for a major league bullpen role moving forward.

Robby Scott, an undrafted free agent, had 1.96 ERA with 51 strikeouts in 59 2/3 innings at Double-A Portland last season. The 25-year-old lefty continued his success in the Arizona Fall League earlier this offseason.

Matt Barnes likely will begin the season in Pawtucket’s starting rotation, meaning he could find his way into Boston’s rotation at some point in 2015. If not, perhaps Barnes will transition into a bullpen job, especially since he showed flashes in five relief appearances with the Red Sox last season.

Prospects to watch
Workman, Hembree, Escobar, Spruill, Wright, Hinojosa, Ramirez, Scott, Barnes

See above.

Many major league relievers are former starters who either failed in their previous role or who are blocked by others within the organization. Thus, almost any prospect is worth monitoring with regard to a potential relief role.

For example, the Red Sox converted Workman into a reliever in 2013. The right-hander had success in the role — he pitched the eighth inning of Game 6 of the World Series — but faltered upon returning to a starting role in 2014. He’ll thus be groomed as a reliever moving forward.

Production and opportunity are paramount in spawning new relievers. Sometimes, ample success in the minors will persuade an organization to temporarily convert a starter into a reliever in order to facilitate a late-season call-up. Other times, a lack of success in the minors will persuade an organization to completely alter its approach and see whether a certain pitcher is better-suited for life in the ‘pen.

2015 expectations
The biggest question surrounding the Red Sox’s bullpen is whether Uehara will show any ill effects of his age or the physical issue that apparently hindered him down the stretch last season. The Red Sox need him to be at the top of his game, so the onus will be on Boston to make sure he’s positioned to succeed, even if that means managing his workload more judiciously.

The rest of the Red Sox’s bullpen isn’t flashy. With Miller now in the Bronx, Boston doesn’t have anyone who is going to light up the radar gun. The Sox also lost a valuable contributor in Burke Badenhop. The Red Sox, whose 3.33 bullpen ERA ranked 12th in the majors last season, should at least produce at a league average level, though.

The only problem is Boston might need even more than that if its ace-less rotation doesn’t hold up to its end of the bargain.

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Thumbnail photo via Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports Images

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