Bullpen Position Battles Brewing

The Red Sox are approaching the 2011 Spring Training is great shape. Theo and his team made several moves this off-season to make the team better overall and fans are anxious to see those new players on the field. As with every season, there are spots on the roster that are up for grabs when the team arrives in Fort Myers, FL and this year is no exception. With the exception of the split-catcher role, every position player is comfortably set in their starting job, assuming they are healthy and for the most part, the starting rotation is set, but the bullpen still seems to be a bit in flux. The end of the ‘pen is all set with Jonathan Papelbon, at least for now, and his set-up man, Daniel Bard, is safely locked-in, but what happens in the middle-relief will partially depend on Spring performances. (more after the jump)

The Red Sox could either carry 12 or 13 pitchers entering the season in April. If we assume they will carry 12-pitchers, then 5 will be for starting pitchers and 7 will be for relievers. Papelbon and Bard are set at the end of the ‘pen and Tim Wakefield will hold a spot, whether it is in long or middle-relief, so we are down to 4 spots. Bobby Jenks was brought in this off-season to stabilize the back-end of the ‘pen as another set-up guy, so he makes 4, leaving 3 open slots. Those 3 spots are more-or-less up in the air. Dan Wheeler will likely have a leg-up to fill one of those, but if he does not perform well this Spring and another reliever pitches well, he may lose out. Assuming Wheeler makes the ‘pen for our purposes, that leaves 2 spots, at least one being reserved for a lefty. Those battle for those 2 spots is where is gets intereting.

The Sox have what seems to be a group of 5 potential left-handed pitchers vying for 1 or possibly 2 spots. Hideki Okajima, Rich Hill, Felix Doubront, Andrew Miller and Randy Williams are all going to Spring Training with something to prove. Normal thinking would be that Okajima is the shoe-in for the job, but the Sox were unhappy with his performance last season. The Sox let him walk in December, but brought him back in to give him a chance to earn a role in the majors in January, mostly because lefty-options were limited and expensive. The next-in-line would likely be Doubront, but since he is a starting pitcher by nature, Theo and Terry Francona need to weigh his options. He may begin the year in Triple-A to allow him to start and pitch consistently, but he may add value as a lefty in the major-league ‘pen.

It depends on a number of factors. The health of our rotation, the performance of the other lefthanded candidates for the bullpen. How (Doubront) looks in camp and how much of a difference-maker we feel he will be in the pen versus the added security of having him start at Triple A. – Theo Epstein on Felix Doubront

The other less obvious options are headlined by Andrew Miller, who appears to be the Sox new project. The new Red Sox pitching coach, Curt Young, spent time watching the tall lefty pitch recently at Boston College and is a big fan. He thinks with a little guidance, Miller could really help the Sox, so Spring Training could prove to be a big audition for the 25-year old. The Sox would love to give Miller a chance in the majors, but need to see some consistency and control in his delivery before they hand him the ball on the Fenway mound. With the race for a lefty up-in-the-air however, Miller has as good a shot as any.

I know he’s very excited to be in the organization. He’s very interesting. You have a guy with that much talent. He can really help us…He’s been through a few bumps. The opportunity to come up with the Tigers as early as he did, sometimes you wonder whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. That’s the path he took and he’s here now…Every pitcher has to do the fundamental things right. Those are the things I talked to him a little about. As we see him throw, those things have to be working in the right direction for him to throw the ball effectively. Guys get to certain ages and their mechanics are created. It’s a matter of getting him consistent and working with three pitches. We’re all very eager to see him this spring. – Curt Young on Miller

Hill and Williams are the dark-horses in the race for the lefty-specialist role, but anything is possible. Assuming the Sox carry 1 lefty, that leaves 1 remaining slot of another reliever. The Sox have some options in Matt Albers, Scott Atchison, Michael Bowden and Robert Coello. Atchison has an advantage, because he performed well in 2010 for the Sox and became one of the most used ‘pen arms down the stretch. Looking past Atchison, Bowden is still a prospect the Sox think will be a star, but he will likely begin the season in Pawtucket to continue to grow into his new reliever role. Albers and Coello are the less-likely options for the Sox, but have a fighting chance.

This Spring will be a big stage for some of the pitchers mentioned to prove themselves. Some will have an easier time than others, but the Sox will go with who they feel gives them the best chance to win games, not necessarily who has spent time with the team in the past. Regardless of who gets the opening day nod in the bullpen, many of the names mentioned above will get their chance in 2011. A team can never have too many arms, so these guys better be ready to make the leap to the bigs at any point as needed.

The competition for the bullpen begins in just under 3 weeks.

Tags: Andrew Miller Bobby Jenks Boston Red Sox Bullpen Dan Wheeler Daniel Bard Felix Doubront Hideki Okajima Jonathan Papelbon Matt Albers Michael Bowden Randy Williams Reliever Rich Hill Robert Coello Scott Atchison Spring Training Tim Wakefield

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