How Should The Red Sox Play The Back End Of The Bullpen?


Entering the 2012 season, the Red Sox appeared to have excellent depth in the back end of their bullpen. Despite losing Jonathan Papelbon to free agency and moving Daniel Bard to the rotation, they had picked up Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon in trades with Oakland and Houston, respectively. Beyond those two, they had the existing options of Alfredo Aceves and Franklin Morales to pitch in if need be. That bullpen, along with the offense, appeared to be strengths for the Red Sox early last season. Well, what went wrong from there?

Oct 1, 2012; Bronx, NY, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Andrew Bailey (40) pitches during the eighth inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Yankees won 10-2. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

Everything went wrong. Andrew Bailey was lost before the season even started due to a thumb injury he sustained in spring training. Mark Melancon was ridiculously ineffective– posting a 49.50 ERA in 4 games to start the year. Alfredo Aceves was decent early in the year, but his relationship with Bobby Valentine grew sour and so did his performance. What looked to be a strength for the Red Sox very quickly turned into an outright failure. While the bullpen corps did improve throughout the season, it lacked the back-end caliber of a contending team.

This prompts the question of what to do going forward. Should the Red Sox continue with what they have in their back end– Bailey, Melancon, and mid-season acquisition Craig Breslow— or should they call it quits and completely revamp it.

If they were to stick to their guns, they would need to count on injury-free and effective years from Bailey and Melancon, no guarantee. Along with spending much of the year injured, Bailey was also ineffective after coming off the disabled list– posting a 7.04 ERA and blowing 3 of 9 save opportunities in 19 appearances. He has proven to be a good closer when healthy, but he’s missed time every year since he won Rookie of the Year in 2009.

While his strikeout rate stayed on par with his career averages, his walk rate jumped from 2.59 in 2011 to 4.50 in 2012. Other than that and a ridiculous .380 BABIP, there’s no statistical explanation for his failure in 2012. Hopefully that performance was purely based on injury and bad luck and he will go back to his career averages in 2013.

Melancon’s main problem in 2012 seems to have been an inflated home run rate of 1.60 per nine innings, well over his 0.86 career average. Other than that, his failure (0-2, 6.20 ERA in 41 appearances) seems to have been mostly bad luck. There doesn’t really seem to be a reason for his rapid decline in 2012, with his strikeout and walk rates similar to his career rates.

Craig Breslow handled himself well after coming to Boston, posting a 2.70 ERA in 23 games after coming over from Arizona. I have no doubt that he can become a great piece in a 2013 bullpen as a left-handed setup man. If Bailey and Melancon can fix their flaws, Breslow could be a very solid seventh inning reliever. If the Red Sox do keep Bailey and Melancon intact as the closer and setup man, then they should rehab well this offseason. Relievers are renowned for being incredibly fickle, so hopefully those are merely blemishes on long and successful careers in Boston.

If the Red Sox decide to blow it up and start anew, however, there are plenty of options on the market. The Red Sox could attempt to strike it rich with bounce back candidates like Joakim Soria and Brian Wilson, who both missed 2012 due to Tommy John Surgery. Although they could command larger contracts, they could also go for Rafael Soriano and Jose Valverde. There are plenty of other good relief pitchers out there, but the Red Sox also have a glut of relief pitchers and adding more mediocrity may not be the best bet.

Since 2013 is profiling as a rebuilding year so far, it can’t hurt the Red Sox to keep what they have. Bailey, Melancon, and Breslow all have very good track records and there’s not a real reason why they can’t revert to old form. If Bailey and Melancon are ineffective again, there’s no doubt that Alfredo Aceves will be better and Andrew Miller is also a candidate for a back end job. However, if the Red Sox get a deal they can’t refuse for somebody like Bailey, then signing Wilson or Soria would be acceptable as well. The whole team should be better in 2013, and two X-factors are Bailey and Melancon.