Red Sox Bullpen in Transition

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With the new pitcher signings and trades this off-season, the Boston Red Sox will be looking at their bullpen pretty closely. Some signings were sure bets for the starting rotation, while others were filled with risk. Whenever a starting pitcher is a risk, only a strong bullpen can save the day. Is the Red Sox bullpen more Superman than Superdud, or will the brass need to make some more additions?

As of today, the Red Sox have 19 pitchers on the active roster. Five of those men will be the starting rotation, leaving 14 to jockey for position in the pen. Obviously, there are young prospects who are chomping at the bit to prove themselves, but the roster itself only has two pitchers under the age of 24: Edwin Escobar (22) and Eduardo Rodriguez (21).  Koji Uehara was a sensational find, especially as the closer during the 2013 World Series; however, he will be turning 40 next year, which makes him a target for doubt at the start of every season for the foreseeable future, regardless of how well he plays. Who will be the closer if or when Uehara will start to slow down?

Do the Red Sox need a solid bullpen? In 2013, the starters were not dominant, but could bleed runs slowly (656) and keep the team in the game until the opposing team had to use their bullpen. Then, the red-hot Boston bats took over and beat up on teams, scoring 853 runs to lead the American League in multiple batting categories. Cue 2014, the starters continued to bleed runs (715), but the bats went cold to score only 634 runs, ranking 11th out of 15 teams. As a whole, the relatively similar pitching staff did not perform as well the year before, when they were only sub-par to begin with as champions. You cannot expect the offence to bail you out every year. There needs to be more consistency at the plate, on the mound, and in the bullpen to create a balance that Red Sox Nation can handle, without pulling out their hair in suspense.

Newly-acquired Justin Masterson will be looking for some consistency of his own, next season. The 29-year-old San Diego State alumni had a terrible, injury-filled 2014 campaign in Cleveland and St. Louis, posting a 7-9 record, with a 5.88 ERA. His 116 strikeouts seemed a blurry reflection of the 195 strikeouts he had the year before.

A number of other projected starters also would like to have a better campaign for the Red Sox next season. Clay Buchholz was a shadow of his former self, going 8-11 after a 12-1 record in 2013. Wade Miley posted a record of 8-12 for the Arizona Diamondbacks, but that was the Diamondbacks. Joe Kelly also was riddled with injuries to post a 6-4 record and was touched for a 4.20 ERA, compared to a 2.69 ERA for St. Louis in 2013. Rick Porcello was the only starter you would have called successful last season, but a 15-13 record is hard to call dominant or ‘ace-worthy’. All of these pitchers have incredible talent and they could be a dominant force, if they perform like they are projected on paper, but the Red Sox should not count on these men always making it to the eighth inning.

The bullpen was discussed by Jason Mastrodonto of MassLive.com, where he reported that “knuckleballer Steven Wright could act as a swingman, serving as a sixth starter and working out of the bullpen, while left-handers Tommy Layne and Drake Britton could compete for spots.” The trade for Anthony Vavaro from the Atlanta Braves and the resigning of lefty Craig Breslow may also help sure up the bullpen. Vavaro’s 50 strikeouts to 13 walks last season was impressive. Breslow’s eight years of solid relief pitching should buy some credit with Red Sox fans, even after the nightmare season he had last season, striking out 37 batters to giving up 28 walks, a 5.96 ERA, three wild pitches, two hit-batsmen, and a balk.

The problem is that almost none of these pitchers have any sense of how to save a game. Out of 54 save opportunities (sadly, that was it) last season, Uehara had 31 of them. The second highest total was Edward Mujica, who is only signed to 2015, with nine opportunities. Pitchers not named Uehara or Mujica only had two saves last season. Layne has only two major league saves in his days with the San Diego Padres. Britton, Vavaro, and Breslow have a combined eight saves (all Breslow) in 26 major league opportunities. That is a lack of experience and a lack of success.

If the Boston Red Sox want to get back to the postseason, the bullpen will need to be handled before the season starts. Few expect the Red Sox to have a scoring drought like they did last season, especially after signing potent, offensive talent like Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. However, the bullpen, at least on paper, does not seem like they could dominate, when there are so many questions still unanswered about their inexperience or ability to bounce back. If Uehara has to pitch more innings than is expected of him, his age may catch up to him sooner than Beantown would want. If no other trades or signings are made before spring training, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington better hope that his new starting rotation can bounce back from their 2014 slumps and injuries, to eat up innings and not let the bullpen be exposed.