The Red Sox have multiple, potentially-important relievers in Pawtucket in Junichi Tazawa and Mark Melancon. They also have Daisuke Matsuzaka working back from Tommy John surgery. At some point very soon, room will need to be made in a bullpen full of pitchers lacking options. Today, we kick off our look at a few hurlers who might end up designated or traded in the coming weeks, in order to clear up this logjam.
Matt Albers was granted his free agency by the Baltimore Orioles after the 2010 season. He still had multiple years of team control left, but after 75 innings of below-average strikeout and walk rates, and with Albers entering his arbitration years, the Orioles cut him loose.
The Red Sox picked him up, settling outside of arbitration to pay him $875,000. Albers had struck hitters out in the minors, but he hadn't found the same success in the majors. Instead, he was reliant almost entirely on his groundball rates. It seems hard to believe now, but Albers had not allowed a homer in his last 48 innings with the Orioles, a stretch starting in mid-June and extending through the end of 2010. That made him worth the flyer, since you would expect a sinkerballer to avoid the long ball.
That's just what he did to begin 2011, as well, as he didn't give up a home run until June 25, a 29-inning stretch. To go 77 innings without allowing a homer is even more than you can ask for out of a pitcher who features a sinker, but add to that the fact Albers had started to strike hitters out -- 27 in those 29 innings -- and the Red Sox looked like they had won the reliever lottery.
Had the season ended there, those good feelings would have remained. But from that June 25 appearance where he allowed a home run through the end of the season, Albers posted a 6.31 ERA, allowed 47 percent of his inherited runners to score, and, while his strikeout rate continued to rise, so did the length of the balls hit off of him. Albers gave up seven homers in his final 35 frames, with opponents hitting .268/.380/.478 against him in 166 plate appearances. That 859 OPS would have ranked directly beneath Dustin Pedroia on the leader boards, were it one hitter.
The 2012 season has not started out gloriously, either. Albers has a 1.84 ERA, but unsurprisingly, a reliever's ERA over 14-plus innings doesn't tell the whole story. He's striking out 4.3 per nine, and getting by on an unprecedented 1.8 walks per nine. For his career, Albers has issued free passes to over four batters per nine -- unless he's trying very hard to throw all of his pitches in the strike zone, this walk rate won't last. And as Twins pitchers will tell you, throwing everything in the strike zone catches up to you, too.
Albers has already given up two homers this year. It's too early for this to be stabilized, but his FIP is 4.58, a far cry from his sub-two ERA. Last year, his FIP was 4.00, and in the two full seasons before, 3.92 and 4.24. We have a pretty good idea of who Albers is, at this point: a groundballing reliever who should be kept in middle relief, as he's either very hit, or very miss. Albers has a 4.20 ERA in his 79 innings with Boston, and has allowed 41 percent of inherited runners to score on top of that -- it's not a pretty line, even if he has struck out 8.5 per nine.
Even those strikeouts are problematic, as Albers doesn't have a true swing-and-miss offering. The strikes often come looking, but that requires living in the strike zone. Being in the strike zone all of the time means fewer grounders, and more pitches missing up in the zone when your command is of Albers' quality. When Albers can only get his fastball over the plate, as was the case in the second half of 2011? Well, that's how you end up allowing seven homers in 35 innings.
That kind of instability doesn't work in a setup role, but that's what the Red Sox lack right now with Mark Melancon in the minors and Alfredo Aceves as closer while Andrew Bailey recovers from thumb surgery. The thing is, the one area in which Boston doesn't lack in the bullpen is middle relief. Scott Atchison has been a revelation since 2011 began. Vicente Padilla can do the long relief thing, and might even be the team's interim setup man until Bailey is back. Clayton Mortensen, like Albers, is a groundballer who didn't miss many bats before arriving in Boston, but he's been showing swing-and-miss stuff and great location to begin 2012 -- having both right-handers around when one has shown himself to be problematic seems superfluous, especially when the other still has an option and more team control.
This makes Albers somewhat expendable, since he's not capable of the job that's open to him, and the Sox have other options -- potentially better ones -- for the role he should be filling. Since he has a year of team control left past 2012, an inexpensive salary (just $1.075 million this year), and stretches of success in the majors, someone with a bullpen hole is bound to be interested in taking him off of Boston's hands. Whether or not the return is worthwhile is another question entirely, but there should be suitors if the expectations on a return are realistic.