Early last year, there seemed to be only one certain thing about Boston pitching: the middle relief was going to get the job done. While dealing with the early struggles of Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, Jonathan Papelbon's heart-attack inducing performances, injuries, and mediocrity from the bottom half of the rotation (Wakefield excluded—he did pretty good for us), the Sox could at least feel secure about innings 7 and 8. On May 25th, both Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen were maintaining ERAs under 1, Hideki Okajima had managed to recover from early struggles to bring his ERA under 3, and Takashi Saito was doing his best to follow suit.
But then something went horribly wrong.
Manny Delcarmen would tank the rest of the season, never having a month with an ERA under 4 after May. His ERA after the All- Star break was an awful 7.27. Ramon Ramirez would at least manage a 3.48 ERA in the same time period, but couldn't break under 4.00 in either August (4.15) or September (4.36). Okajima managed a 1.64 ERA in August, but then imploded in September with 6 runs in 7.1 innings.
Those are 3 of 4 returning members of last year's middle relief: a trio of relievers who spent the latter parts of the season putting up numbers which would be at best average for starters. The final member is Daniel Bard, a rookie who has fantastic potential, but can't necessarily be counted on yet. In short, another question mark.
Theo has to ask himself: is this going to cut it? In 2007, the Red Sox utilized Declarmen and Okajima as a top-notch combo for the 7th and 8th innings. But Manny Delcarmen has been incredibly inconsistent since then, and Hideki Okajima has lost some of his effectiveness as he ages, and as opposing hitters figure out his unusual delivery more and more. Their numbers look nothing like they did in the championship season.
For a team that seeks to play low-scoring games and base their team around run prevention, having a strong bullpen is absolutely essential. While the Sox may be hoping that their improved defense will improve their bullpen performance (and undoubtedly, there will be some change), can we really put our faith in a guy like Manny Delcarmen, who walks more than 5 guys per 9 innings? What about Ramon Ramirez, who spent the last half of 2009 as a ROOGY? Currently, the Sox have nobody outside of Papelbon who can shut down guys from both sides of the plate. Delcarmen had a .936 OPS against facing righties last year (odd, given that he's right handed, but it follows the career trend), while Okajima was barely better at .901. Lefties managed a .792 OPS against Ramon Ramirez, and a .859 OPS against Bard (there is some hope here, as Bard's minor league splits do not show a problem against lefties—in fact, he was better against them). An alternating lineup with decent pinch hitting could eat this bullpen alive if these trends were to continue.
What's most puzzling is that the Sox have seemingly chosen to ignore this problem. While they have signed a plethora of relievers, none of them are impressive names, and all seem likely to compete for only the final bullpen slot. Meanwhile, players like Kiko Calero or Chan Ho Park (as a reliever), who did well against lefties and righties alike, haven't even been mentioned in the same sentence as the Red Sox.
Perhaps the Red Sox think there will be options in the trade market later, if they need them. Perhaps they expect a turnaround from 1 or more of our players. Maybe they just think the defense will make all the difference. But right now, Tito will be hard pressed to find anyone he can trust to go a full inning against a balanced team, much less the switch-hitting Yankees.