It's June 28, and the Red Sox have had one of the more turbulent seasons I can remember since I started watching the team back in 1998. Even with all of the controversy surrounding this team, especially coming off of last year's collapse, the Sox find themselves five games above .500, at 40-35, but still tied for third place in the uber-competitive AL East. Even so, as of today, they are only 1-1/2 games out of the second wild card, trailing the Orioles. Besides the seemingly-constant controversies, this team has also dealt with its fair share of injuries, especially to some of its stars. With Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury each due to return sometime in the next month, the offense should be getting its anchors back. However, another entity on this team that stands to improve leaps and bounds in the second half of the season is the bullpen.
Much like the 2011 Red Sox, the bullpen for this year's team got off to a horrific start. After one month of the season, they were arguably the worst unit in baseball, finishing last in both ERA and FIP, partly due to the second-worst homer rate, 1.6, "bested" only by the Mariners. However, as the temperature has risen, so has the performance of this relief corps. After that terrible start, the pen has ranked seventh and second in FIP in May and June, respectively.
Much of the blame for that horrible April can be put upon the shoulders of Alfredo Aceves and Mark Melancon. Neither pitcher was able to immediately make the necessary adjustment coming into the season. It took a few games for Aceves to adjust to his new role as the team's closer, which he was thrust into shortly before Opening Day. Mark Melancon was coming over from the lowly Astros, and may not have been ready for the pressure of playing for a contender right away. Now, about half way through the season, both of those guys appear to have righted their respective ships. With the All-Star break fast approaching, it seems this bullpen has hit a real stride and should be a strength for the rest of the season. With a couple more pieces still yet to join the relief corps, this unit may be the strength that pushes this team into the postseason.
In the off-season, the Sox traded Josh Reddick, who's been having a fantastic season, to Oakland in exchange for Ryan Sweeney and Andrew Bailey. The latter was supposed to team up with Melancon and form a feared pair in the back of the bullpen. However, due to a thumb injury, Bailey has yet to set foot on the field as a member of the Red Sox. That should change sometime shortly following the All-Star break, as Bailey's rehab currently has him on a pace to return sometime in mid-July. Upon his return, the Sox will have a stacked back of the bullpen.
Bailey has pitched three seasons in the majors, each of them in Oakland. He has pitched well in all of them, when healthy, posting a sub-three FIP in each season. Last year was also the only year of his career in which he had an ERA above two, and some of that can be blamed on his abnormally low 67 percent left-on-base-rate. While it may be fair to expect a few more home runs to be let up by Bailey, as he leaves the spacious Coliseum in Oakland for Fenway, he should still be able to hold down the 9th inning in a consistent manner. When he returns from injury, it will be important to monitor his velocity. Bailey throws either his fastball or cutter about 89 percent of the time over his career, per Brooks Baseball. If he returns from his injury and is still throwing in the 93-94 range, he should maintain his past success.
Joining him in the back of the bullpen will be Melancon, who gave just about the worst first impression imaginable to Boston fans. After four terrible outings in April, he was sent down to Pawtucket to regain his confidence and mechanics. Since being brought back to the team in June, however, he has been markedly better. He has allowed just one run to score, and has a 3.64 FIP and 3.67 xFIP since returning, albeit in just six innings of work. Melancon proved he can be a reliable back of the bullpen arm while he was in Houston, posting sub-four FIPs in each of the past two seasons, with last year coming mostly in the closer's role. Judging by how he has pitched over the past month, he and Bailey should form the back of the bullpen the front office envisioned when it traded Reddick and Jed Lowrie this winter.
The real strength of the bullpen, however, will lie with the amount of reliable arms that can pitch multiple innings. So far this year, that role has been played by Scott Atchison, and has been played quite well. With his 1.33 ERA and 2.49 FIP in 40.2 innings this year, he has a real case at being an All-Star come July. In fact, his 0.9 fWAR has him tied for ninth amongst all relievers in baseball in that category. What's been particularly great about Atchison's season has been that he's gone more than one inning in 12 of his 32 appearances, and has only given up two runs in all of those appearances combined.
Beyond Atchison, there is also Alfredo Aceves, who has been holding down the closer spot admirably in Bailey's absence. All indications are that Bailey will get the save opportunities upon his return, so it will be interesting to see what they do with Aceves. He's surely earned some high-leverage opportunities, and he will surely be used in high-pressure situations for the remainder of the season. However, he was extremely valuable a year ago acting as this team's swing-man of sorts, and should be given an opportunity to do so again. He probably won't be as stretched out as he was in 2011, but he has made six outings of over an inning this season, and could definitely be called upon to make some more of those appearances in the second half of the year.
Also returning to this bullpen for the first time this season will be Daniel Bard. After the experiment to try him as a starter failed, he and the team made a mutual agreement that he is better suited for the bullpen. After performing as one of the elite relief arms over the last three years, the team hopes he will be able to regain that dominance after his disastrous reign in the rotation. While control has been a huge issue for Bard this season, that should hopefully right itself in the bullpen. One of Bard's biggest problems was that he couldn't maintain his velocity over multi-inning starts this year. With the move back into the relief role, he should be able to get his velocity back in the mid-to-high-90s, as well as pitch solely from the stretch, something he seems to prefer. Also, since he has been stretched out to start this year, he should be able to be another guy to provide multi-inning outings out of the bullpen once he returns from Pawtucket.
Finally, there is Franklin Morales, should he ever return to the bullpen. After the lefty had performed well in relief this year (3.04 ERA, 3.98 FIP), he has made a couple of spot starts for the Sox, and has been great. In two starts, against the Cubs and the Braves, he has allowed 4 earned runs in 11 innings, while striking out 17 batters compared to zero walks. With Josh Beckett set to return this weekend against Seattle, and Clay Buchholz hopefully returning shortly after that, it remains to be seen whether Morales will remain in the rotation. If he doesn't the bullpen will welcome him with open arms as a lefty who can perform both in high-leverage situations, as well as a multi-inning candidate.
In case you're not keeping track at home, that's four legitimate multi-inning relievers to go along with a strong eighth and ninth inning pairing in Bailey and Melancon. Throw in Andrew Miller, who has been surprisingly successful in relief this season, and Vicente Padilla to round out the bullpen, and this is a unit that should be feared around the league. With the never-ending inconsistencies of the Red Sox starting rotation, having a strong bullpen who can seamlessly secure a large number of innings if need be is huge for this team. When Ellsbury and Crawford return, they will have an offense capable of putting up a crooked number in any given inning, if they don't already. Being armed with a bullpen that can take over for a struggling starter and keep the other team off the scoreboard will give the offense a much better chance at coming back in games in which they dig themselves an early hole. It will be interesting to see how Bobby Valentine uses the plethora of relievers he will have come mid-July, but if they're used efficiently, this unit may have enough firepower to push this team past the Rays, Angels, or both, and into the postseason.