Can Boston’s bullpen crop take the heat?


Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Former Red Sox bullpen coach John Cumberland once planted tomatoes just beyond the right field wall at Fenway. “I’m trying to change the karma around here,” he announced after digging 18 plants (for 1918) and sweet basil into the bullpen soil.

His karma experiment didn’t produce a yield. Cumberland himself was pruned from the Red Sox coaching staff, leaving his watering can to “El Guapo” Rich Garces and the Red Sox relievers when manager Jimy Williams was bumped (“if a frog had wings…”) that summer.

Tomatoes are sensitive to many factors: sun, moisture, soil chemistry, pests. A bountiful harvest isn’t always in the farmer’s hands. In 2013, GM Ben Cherington, a regular Old MacDonald, sought to fortify his relief crop by trading for Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan. His season was over by Mother’s Day. The Glass Arm of Voorhees, NJ – Andrew Bailey – again failed to stay healthy and logged just three appearances after the Fourth of July.

The Sox also broke camp in 2013 with Alfredo Aceves, Clayton Mortensen and Andrew Miller in the ‘pen: demoted, dealt, and done for the season, respectively.  They brought in Matt Thornton, a lefty with a track record, in July, but even he was used sparingly and left off the postseason roster. Thornton is now a Yankee.

At the outset of the campaign, who would have thought Koji Uehara, Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa would combine for a 1.28 ERA in 28 1/3 innings of dominant relief in the postseason?

But that’s how it works sometimes. Bullpen volatility is expected. Sometimes there’s a drought, and sometimes the growing conditions are just right and you win a World Series.

The addition of Edward Mujica looks great on paper. The burly righty cobbled together solid seasons pitching in such baseball outposts as San Diego and Miami before arriving, and thriving, in St. Louis. He compiled a greater than 8:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 94 appearances with the Redbirds over parts of two seasons. So he fits Boston’s organizational philosophy of having strike-throwers in the bullpen. He’s also insurance for Uehara, who logged the most innings of his career last year at age 38.

But he hasn’t faced the AL East. He’s a bit prone to the longball: Mujica surrendered nine homers in 64 2/3 innings in 2013, numbers that would make Bert Blyleven proud. That said, $4.75 million for a quality reliever with closing experience is a reasonable price in Major League Baseball. West Springfield’s Chris Capuano will eat innings, Burke Badenhop has the tools to contribute, and Miller will make a comeback bid after another injury.

The Boston bullpen has all the ingredients for success in 2014. Just don’t be surprised if one or more pitchers wither like John Cumberland’s tomato plants in the late summer sun. An unlikely hero (Brandon Workman? Rubby De La Rosa?) may be called upon to save the day, just as Koji and the gang did in 2013.