A Dominant Red Sox Bullpen? For Serious?

Jared Wickerham

Next season's Red Sox bullpen could be dangerous to a team besides the Red Sox. How awesome would that be?

There are few things more satisfying in baseball then turning a lead over to the bullpen in the middle innings secure in the knowledge your team will win. That security doesn't come easy though. It requires a damn good bullpen, something it seems the Red Sox haven't had in a fair bit of time, and even then it hasn't been a frequent occurrence. The 2007 pen had Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima, and that worked quite well. Going farther back, Keith Foulke was as responsible as anyone for bringing a World Series victory to Boston after 86 seasons.

Last season the Red Sox had a below average pen, finishing 20th in bullpen FIP, though on the long Santa's-naughty-and-nice-length list of problems, the bullpen was nowhere to be found. A good pen isn't completely a fading memory though. Back in 2011 Boston's pen was pretty good, fourth in FIP behind the Braves, Giants, and Brewers. Looking at the Red Sox roster now, the bullpen looks, as the kids say, stacked. Moreso than the lineup or the rotation or the team's defense, the bullpen looks like it could dominate. There's good reason to suspect that, with a bit of injury luck (the good kind, please), the Red Sox could have themselves quite the good pen next season.

First, Joel Hanrahan. The two seasons prior to last he was an elite reliever. Last season, as has been covered here at OTM, he endured a tough ending to the season, an ending that has been chalked up to nagging injuries and some mistaken mechanics. If the Red Sox really know how to 'fix' Hanrahan (not like he was broken last year, but) they might have an elite reliever on their hands. Considering their public statements and what they gave up to get him you'd have to guess that's their hope.

Then, Andrew Bailey. Throughout his career, and by "throughout" I mean anytime before 2012, Bailey was a shutdown reliever when he was on the mound. Injuries were always a concern of his employers, but last year took it to a new level. The good news is there shouldn't be any lasting carryover from 2012 when Bailey climbs the mound in Fort Myers six weeks from now. The added bonus here is that having Hanranhan frees manager John Farrell to use Bailey in a more flexible role where he might do more good. Yes, he might be the 'eighth inning guy' but that role, most recently ably manned by Daniel Bard (pre game-destroyer version) allows the manager to drop him into a particularly tough situation in the seventh or, should circumstances require, even in the sixth.

The idea of having both Bailey and Hanrahan, two young strikeout pitchers with good K/BB ratios, gets me excited for Spring Training and I haven't even mentioned the guy who might be the Red Sox best reliever yet. Junichi Tazawa was that man last season, striking out over a batter an inning while walking just over one a game. On top of that, Tazawa's ground ball rate was quite good. With Hanrahan in the ninth, Bailey in the eighth, that means the Red Sox could actually deploy Tazawa's particular brand of awesome in the sixth or seventh. Or the third. No rules. Where ever it's needed.

It's true we're talking about a small sample size of just 44 innings here so what we saw last year from Tazawa might not be repeatable. For whatever it's worth (not much) the Bill James projections at Fan Graphs project him to be almost the same guy he was last season. They see a few more walks, but everything else the same.

So far with Hanrahan, Bailey, and Tazawa, the potential is there for shutting some games down just two thirds in. Here's the seventh inning, time to knock off early. Now throw in Koji Uehara. In a way, Uehara's career is like Tazawa last season, but with Bailey's injury history. In other words, he's incredible when he pitches, he just doesn't pitch all the time. With the bullpen depth the Red Sox have you can see how they could sign a guy like Uehara though. When he's there, great, throw him into the fire. When he's not, that's OK too. We've got Bailey, and Hanrahan, and Tazawa, so we'll be fine.

Still though, Uehara. In a piece at Baseball Prospectus Sam Miller jotted down some of the many incredible Uehara facts, a few of which I'll excerpt here (Check out the article which is free to see the rest):

  • As a Ranger, Koji Uehara struck out 66 and walked four.
  • After a first-pitch strike, Koji Uehara has struck out 132 and walked six.
  • After a first pitch strike and a second-pitch strike, Koji Uehara has struck out 106 and walked one.

It's true, Uehara's control is ridiculous. He occasionally pays the price for being in the strikezone all the time in the form of a homer here or there, but because he almost never walks anyone (29 walks in 211 career innings) and doesn't give up many hits either (166 in those same 211 innings), the homers don't hurt nearly as much. In short, Uehara can be a get-out-of-jail card, deployed at any time in the game to get the team out of a tight situation or to bridge to the rest of the shutdown relievers after a shorter than desired start. At this time I should also mention that he enjoys comically over-sized, mass-produced, food-like products.

Hanrahan, Bailey, Tazawa, and Uehara could be pretty sick in a good way, but the Sox pen can also count on, to whatever extent it has to Andrew Miller and Craig Breslow, two capable, above average relievers. With this kind of depth the Red Sox should have at least one very good reliever available every game (and likely more), even day games after extra-inning night affairs.

You may have noticed that one name is still missing. Daniel Bard's crash and burn last season was epic and there is no way of knowing if he even has a major league career left, let alone if he can return to his place among the top of baseball's set-up guys. The door is still open though. Even with the kind of depth described above, you always create room for a guy like 2011 Daniel Bard (less so the 2012 version). The Red Sox don't need him to regain his skills to have a great pen though. The other four guys not to mention Miller and Breslow and Franklin Morales could be beastly, even without a peep from Bard, even without help from a minor league system seemingly brimming (all of a sudden) with relief prospects.

Is some of this pie-in-the-sky? Maybe. Projecting bullpen performance is fraught with peril (can something be fraught with something that is not peril?). Making solid statements about relievers is a good way to make a fool of yourself. Still, looking at this list of names is exciting, at least a little bit. This team may not feature the hitting of the '03 Sox or the starting pitching of the '07 squad, but there is a real shot that the 2013 team might have one of the best bullpens we've seen in Boston in a long time. It's not everything, but it's not nothing either.

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