It's the bullpen....

A long time reader of this splendid blog, this is my first post.  It’s a reflection on why we are on the verge of falling out of playoff contention, what this says about the run prevention approach to the past off-season, and what this in turn suggests about next year.  Apologies if it becomes too long.


It’s impossible not to dwell on the injuries.  Nothing short of brutal.  That we are where we are is remarkable under the circumstances.  Yet it’s not the crucial factor placing us being the MFY and Tampa.  Surely it’s cost us (so far) three to five games in the standings, but let’s unpack it.  First, the outfield: overall Macdonald, Kalish, Nava and the much maligned on this blog Hall and even more maligned on this blog (and slightly more deservedly) Patterson have been real contributors.  How much more would Ells and Cameron have given us?  I actually don’t think that we lost much here.  Remarkably.  Second, having no catcher for nearly a month probably cost us a game or two.  Forty games without Pedroia probably cost us another game or two (though Hall with his 16 homers so far this season and Lowrie in his brief presence weren’t terrible back-ups, and you’re always going to get *some* injuries to a key player or three).  And who knows what to make of the Beckett and Dic-K DL stints (I discount Bucholz’s 15-day episode as the sort of stumble that happens as part of the routine)?  Clearly our 6th starters didn’t deliver gems, but it’s not clear to me how much better we’d have gotten from the original starter candidates given how erratic they’ve been when putatively healthy.  So far, then, I’d say a maximum of five games due to injuries (not including the cost of not having Youkilis for the remainder of the season).


The real culprit, I think, is the bullpen.  The Sox are 3rd in the majors in blown saves, with 18, and the relievers have a cumulative total, by my count, of 17 losses.  Taken together, that is 35 games lost by the bullpen.  35 frigging games!  Compare to 11 blown saves and 11 bullpen losses for the MFY, and 9 blown saves and 10 bullpen losses for the Rays.  That accounts for a helluva lot more than the 5+ games we’re out in the standings, or of anything attributable to injuries.


A run prevention strategy, which I consider wise and worth maintaining, is premised on a) defensive prowess – we’ve been pretty solid on that front, ergo a Theo success; b) quality starting pitching – mixed bag, and you could argue that the pen would have looked less pitiful had more starters gone further into quality starts, though on paper it looked really good (and god help us better hold up for several years); and, yes, c) the friggin bullpen.  And that’s where we fell short.


It’s a shame, because despite the devastating spate of injuries, the Sox are still second in the majors in run scored, i.e. offensive production has been sufficient.  It’s the run prevention that’s killed us, and it’s the bullpen that’s responsible for that.


So what does this say about the future?  Let me begin with the pitching.  Obviously, starters are locked up for some time, so there’s nothing to debate here (though Fenway should host a nice retirement ceremony for Wakefield in April).  Let’s hope that Beckett and Lackey earn their contracts.  We’re stuck with them, for better or worse.  And let’s hope that Bucholz and Lester remain aces.  But as for the bullpen, first, Papelbon is no longer a premier closer, and shouldn’t be paid premier closer money next year.  Five losses, six blown saves so far!  Striking out the side against the bottom of the Angels order tonight was pretty, but it does not a season make.  The closer job is Bard’s from next year on into the foreseeable future.  Let’s hope Tito doesn’t waste his arm before he has a chance to prove it.  Second, as much as we all may have wanted to see home grown MDC blossom, it’s time to resign ourselves to the fact that he’s not reliable enough to pitch pivotal innings for a team with championship aspirations.  Third, we can’t go into next year with Schoenweiss types sitting in the bullpen just waiting to lose games.  The AL East is just too strong to be able to take such risks.  Fourth, and accordingly, if by spring training there is not justified confidence in the next generation – the Bowdens, Doubronts and Manuels, for example – then Theo has got to go out and pay for some serious bullpen arms in advance of next season.  We can’t afford to start next year 4-9 because we didn’t work this out in the off-season.


As for the offense, I don’t see any great power bat beckoning for the outfield (at least not for a reasonable contract), so I’d place my bets on a combo of Drew plus the young-uns (including, perhaps, if he’s not moved for middle relief, Ellsbury) and whatever may be left of Cameron.  If the young-uns falter, yu can always trade for a solid outfield bat into the season.  You don’t need to be first in the majors in runs scored.  Top five would be sufficient if you got the rest of it right.  Having said that, Beltre, it seems to me, is worth a big contract risk -- despite his habit of having career years in contract years -- and I’d strongly advocate trying to keep Ortiz for two years (no mas; bad Aprils and Mays will eventually become bad full years….).  Which leaves us with V-Mart.  Solid night tonight, but over the season I’ve been underwhelmed, and keeping in mind that a long term contract would mean a commitment beyond his catching days, and our relying on him (likely production of 270-330-15 HRs) as a 1b-DH, I’d be inclined to spend that money on other (run prevention) pieces.  A key question here is whether we think that Saltalomaccia can fulfill the promise that once made him a candidate to be traded for Bucholz, but my inclination is to hope that will work, with Tek as a back-up for next year.  Remember: we’ve not had problems offensively.  Spend the money to get the bullpen right. And if there’s any chance that Lowrie can stay healthy, keep him, either to cover for injuries anywhere in the infield or, if we’re fortunate enough not to have any, to share time with Scutaro.


Just some thoughts – will welcome and no doubt learn from feedback from the many very well informed folks who post here routinely.

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