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Relief for the Pen?

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Bullpen. Can one word convey such foreboding, such imminent promise of despair? Since time immemorial, relief pitching has been bemoaned and bewailed. Bullpens are subject to more changes and fads than modern art or public education.

There's a simple rule that governs whether pitchers start or relieve: any pitcher that is good enough to start, does. Players with only two 'plus' pitches go to the pen; players who tire after 4-5 innings or the 2nd or 3rd time through the lineup go to the pen; players who are so mediocre they barely belong in pro baseball, let alone MLB... end up in the pen. As a result, the pool of relief pitching is pretty bad. By which I mean wretched, awful, horrific.

There is a small pool of players who are reliably good, among the vast sweltering masses of torpid players. These individuals are collectively known as "closers." An even smaller core of setup men are reliably good. But most relievers vacillate, often wildly, between success and horrific failure.

Against this backdrop, the Red Sox have developed a strategy for their pen. Find a relief ace (Foulke, Papelbon), put some guys under club control with good stuff around him (Bard, Okajima, Delcarmen) and surround them with journeymen middle relievers. The last ingredient is prayer - the fervent, fervid hope that this unwieldy assemblage is successful.

So let's take a closer look at how this strategy is playing out. [Click Continue Reading for More]

Last year, the pen worked out pretty well. Check out these numbers:

Papelbon 1.85 ERA, 3.05 FIP
Bard 3.65 ERA, 3.38 FIP
Wagner 1.98 ERA, 2.58 FIP
Saito 2.43 ERA, 4.25 FIP
Ramirez 2.84 ERA, 4.46 FIP
Okajima 3.39 ERA, 4.20 FIP
Delcarmen 4.53 ERA, 4.62 FIP
Overall Relievers 3.80 ERA (vs. 4.60 for starters)

In fact, throughout the year the pen was a team strength. At the trade deadline, the team acquired Billy Wagner, who reinforced that strength, with his successful performance. As a result, the Sox cruised into the playoffs with one of the best pens in baseball, which didn't matter at all when their offense did nothing and their closer blew a key save.

This year, things are different.

Papelbon 2.86 ERA, 4.65 FIP
Bard 2.29 ERA, 3.61 FIP
Ramirez 5.13 ERA, 4.99 FIP
Delcarmen 2.25 ERA, 5.07 FIP
Atchison 4.05 ERA, 4.43 FIP
Okajima 4.24 ERA, 4.76 FIP
Schoenweiss 7.90 ERA, 5.33 FIP
Overall Relievers 4.23 ERA (vs. 4.30 for starters)

While three players have sub-3 ERAs, we've got a grand total of one reliever with a FIP below 4 (last season we had three). Some of this comes from replacing great relievers like Wagner and Saitos with journeymen like our two Scotts, or old DOA veterans like Joe Nelson (and his DFA'd 9.72 ERA). But some of it is also yearly variation, as players like Okajima, Ramon Ramirez, and even Jonathan Papelbon, play worse ball than they did last year.

Relief pitchers are very hard to project, and excepting closers and a handful of elite setup men (e.g. Detroit's Zumaya). While our pen is worse than last year's, I'm not terribly concerned. First of all, it's early enough that players like RamRam or Oki could settle down and provide us with good performances. Second, we still have a good closer (Paps) and an elite relief ace (Bard), which is more than some teams can say. Third, there's not much that Theo can, or should, do to improve it.

Last year, we had a superb pen. Come October, it didn't make any difference at all. The 2010 squad's success will depend more on continued strength from our offense (in light of all the injuries), and on our starting rotation, which can keep the pen out of games, than on our bullpen. Grabbing one or two successful new relievers is no guarantee they will be successful (see Gagne, Eric). And we shouldn't be wasting prospects on relievers, who are either going to be too costly in trade (Kelly+ for a good reliever) or unlikely to be much better than what we have.

When Theo hits the trade market, he'll probably be on the look out for relievers. But I'd rather see him focus on getting a serviceable starter on a short-term deal, or more depth / quality for the outfield, than fretting about the pen.