Craig Breslow is the latest addition to the Red Sox bullpen, but he might not be the last. (Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE)
It didn't take very long for the entire complexion of the Red Sox bullpen to change. Righty reliever Matt Albers was sent to Arizona along with Scott Podsednik, bringing back an opposite-handed bullpen piece in Craig Breslow. Scott Atchison, who was supposed to be returning from a rehab assignment shortly after beginning it, instead seems to be on his way to Tommy John surgery and the end of his 2012 campaign after an MRI discovered a tear in his UCL.
Albers owned a 2.29 ERA with the Red Sox this season, despite a 1.7 K/BB and 1.4 homers per nine. A .218 batting average on balls in play helped him strand 85 percent of runners, but betting on either of those figures to continue going forward is just asking for trouble. It's hard to tell what the Diamondbacks were thinking by taking him on, given Arizona is something of a home run haven, and Albers, despite his grounder tendencies, leaves far too many pitches up that end up going out. That's not Boston's problem to contend with, though.
The only issue the Sox have is finding someone to replicate Albers' production. Finding someone capable of what he would do going forward is different than slotting in someone who has accomplished what he did, whether he lucked into it or not. What Albers did was strand 85 percent of his baserunners and produce a low-2s ERA, though, to be fair about things, he also allowed 12 of his 35 inherited runners to score.
Luckily, even without considering the addition of Breslow, the Red Sox have these kinds of arms around already, thanks to some fantastic depth in the bullpen. That's the same reason why, as much as losing Atchison stings, it's much more damaging for his career and future paychecks than it is for the Red Sox.
Breslow is also stranding runners at a ridiculous clip, but for his career, he's left 77 percent of them on base. He also owns a .266 BABIP over 322 career relief innings and 335 games, and the lefty has not shown any major splits in his game, with the ability to get both lefties and righties out with his stuff. Essentially, if you had to peg one of the two to keep up their low-BABIP ways, it would be the pitcher who has been making a career out of it, especially given he's not susceptible to lefties.
Breslow isn't necessarily a high-leverage arm -- not that Albers was either, despite the way he was utilized -- and while he makes Boston's bullpen that much deeper, he's not exactly a replacement for what Albers or Atchison did. The Red Sox don't have to search far for that particular guy, though, as that job goes to Andrew Bailey, who is roughly half-a-dozen rehab appearances away from returning to the majors.
Bailey was acquired this past off-season in the Josh Reddick trade, along with outfielder Ryan Sweeney. Bailey hasn't pitched with Boston since the spring thanks to surgery on the UCL in his thumb, but there's reason to be excited for this first appearance. The righty was meant to be an anchor in the pen to replace the departed Jonathan Papelbon, without costing the kind of money or commitment in years that Papelbon received on the open market. Bailey owns a 2.07 career ERA that, even after park adjustments, comes out to a 204 ERA+ in 174 innings. He's struck out a batter per inning for his career, whiffed 3.6 times more hitters than he's walked, limited opponents to a .237 BABIP, and stranded 82 percent of runners. His FIP for those three seasons is 2.74, a mark that, if he were to match it in Boston, would make him as ridiculous as Papelbon was (2.61).
Bailey might not even close, as Alfredo Aceves has flourished in the role since his early April hiccups. If Bailey does return to the role that he was acquired for, though, Aceves will make for a fine replacement in terms of covering the lost innings of Atchison and Albers. Aceves is at his best when he works often, as evidenced by not just this season (once pitching coach Bob McClure and manager Bobby Valentine realized the fact, anyway), but also last year, when Aceves threw 64 innings in the last three months of the season. The result? A 2.6 K/BB thanks to 52 strikeouts against 20 walks to go along with a .221 BABIP and 1.82 ERA. Should Aceves return to that multi-inning gig, making himself into a large bridge that connects the starters to Bailey, Boston will be just fine.
It doesn't even have to come to that, though, as the Red Sox pen is overflowing with options. Mark Melancon has pitched very well since returning to the bigs, limiting opponents to a 603 OPS while striking out 15 hitters in 20 innings (against five walks). He's still giving up some runs, as his 4.50 ERA in those 18 games suggest, but there's been a lot of progress here. Speaking of progress, Andrew Miller's mechanical changes and the ditching of his windup have made him into a reliable -- and dangerous -- southpaw. Miller has a 2.81 ERA and what was likely deemed unthinkable 4.3 K/BB thanks to 10.5 punch outs per nine and easily the best control and command of his seven-year career.
There's Vicente Padilla, who is punching out nearly 10 batters per nine, and, like Aceves, has been nigh unstoppable ever since the April meltdown against the Yankees. (2.37 ERA, 32 strikeouts in 30-1/3 innings, 4.0 K/BB, 0.3 homers per nine since April 25). Clayton Mortensen and Junichi Tazawa have bounced around between Boston and Pawtucket thanks to having options, but the pair have combined for 38 innings, many of them coming in long outings, helping to save the pen. Mortensen is easily having his best year as a professional after shifting to the left side of the rubber, while Tazawa has struck out 13 hitters against one walk in his 15 frames.
That doesn't even get into Alex Wilson and Chris Carpenter, who are both in Pawtucket and not currently on the 40-man roster. If the situation merits it, either or both could be summoned to the majors. There's also Daniel Bard, who might spend the rest of the year in Pawtucket figuring himself out. But, if he does that sooner than later, we're well aware of what he's capable of in relief.
This is a situation where Boston's bullpen might actually improve thanks to the subtractions in it -- and that includes the "loss" of Franklin Morales to the rotation as well -- as there's now room for just about everyone who is capable of producing. That's an excellent place to be in, especially if you remember the bullpens of the last few seasons that were highly reliant on a pair of arms, and it's to general manager Ben Cherington's credit that Boston finds themselves in that situation today.