Mixed Beginnings For Red Sox Bullpen Hopefuls

J. Meric

While all eyes in Boston (or, rather, Fort Myers) are on the battle for the final two bench spots, there's still the issue of the bullpen to be decided.

The past couple weeks have brought a lot of attention to the Boston bench. It's still completely unclear which two of Daniel Nava, Ryan Sweeney, Lyle Overbay, and Mike Carp (and I suppose Jackie Bradley if you take John Farrell's word for it) are going to fill the last two roster spots set aside for position players, but that's not the only question facing the Red Sox right now. There's a bullpen crunch to deal with too.

Five starting pitchers, nine starting position players (including the DH), four backups. That's 18 roster spots, leaving seven open for relievers. The Red Sox, meanwhile, have quite a few relievers:

  1. Joel Hanrahan
  2. Andrew Bailey
  3. Craig Breslow
  4. Koji Uehara
  5. Junichi Tazawa
  6. Daniel Bard
  7. Clayton Mortensen
  8. Andrew Miller
  9. Alfredo Aceves
  10. Franklin Morales

And that's not even including the Triple-A relievers like Alex Wilson and Chris Carpenter.

A few players are obvious locks. Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara were just brought in, Craig Breslow is the definition of reliable, and Andrew Bailey will make it on reputation alone if he's still in the organization come time to make the final cut. Junichi Tazawa, too, is likely guaranteed a spot after his amazing 2012 performance unless he completely falls to pieces over the next month.

The rest, though, are not obvious picks. Five names for two spots.

Many expected Alfredo Aceves wouldn't even receive an offer from the Red Sox after his actions in 2012, but one way or another he's back on the roster and giving up runs, allowing two to the Rays on Monday, walking two and striking out not a man. This against a lineup which looked incredibly weak after the top three batters.

Getting Daniel Bard back to his old self would be big even for a Red Sox team with an already impressive bullpen. And, so far, there are a few signs that the old Bard is in there. While he's not hitting triple digits yet with his fastball, he's already registering in the mid-90s, which is better than we saw out of him come the end of 2012. He also pitched in Monday's game against the Rays, throwing a scoreless inning but showing some of the control problems that plagued him following his conversion to starting, hitting one batter and walking another. The good news is that the hit batter came on a slider to the foot, which is always a risk with that particular pitch, particularly when it's breaking well. Last year that would've been a fastball to the back. For what it's worth, he also struck out the side in his inning against Northeastern.

Andrew Miller has, likewise, thrown just the two innings, including one against a college team. His results have been a bit cleaner, however, with just the one hit against him. After a strong performance as a LOOGY last year, Miller's chances might depend less on his own performance, however, and more on that of others. Miller is inherently limited by his role, but at the same time seems to have less to prove. He is what he is--the question is whether or not the Sox have a place for that. If they can't, it's basically guaranteed someone else will once he hits waivers.

One man who could go a long way towards keeping Miller off the roster is Franklin Morales. We saw Morales perform remarkably well as a starter last year before he ended up on the disabled list. The organization is currently being a bit non-committal with Morales' role, though it seems he will at east be stretched out to start in spring training. The problem with Morales is finding a space for him on the roster. A long reliever is all well and good, but it becomes harder when you want to keep them ready to go five or six on any given day. He'll get his first start of the spring today, but really if the Sox end up liking two of the other candidates enough to give them a roster spot, it may ultimately come down to disabled list shenanigans and "rehab" starts in Pawtucket.

Finally there's Clayton Mortensen, who proved so dependable last year, but did so with some sketchy peripherals. Simply put, Mortensen needs to show he can find the zone, or he's just Alfredo Aceves waiting to implode (if not quite so...dramatically). So far, however, Mortensen isn't instilling much confidence, allowing three runs to the Cardinals in Boston's blowout 15-4 loss Tuesday afternoon.

Of course, early performances in spring training need to be taken with a good few grains of salt. If batters are just getting warmed up, the same is true of pitchers. Still, Alfredo Aceves and Clayton Mortensen have done themselves no favors early on, and they arguably started out at the back of the pack. Neither has the upside of Morales as a pitcher (don't get me started on Alfredo Aceves going more than two--the man loses all control), Bard as a reliever, or the seeming reliability of Andrew Miller as a LOOGY. There's another month left to prove themselves in, but it's not a stretch to say we've got some early frontrunners.

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