The top priority heading into the 2011 offseason for the Red Sox was very clear and cut according to General Manager Theo Epstein: Bullpen, Bullpen, Bullpen.
Even though it took backseat to signing Carl Crawford and acquiring Adrian Gonzalez, Theo Epstein and company transformed the Red Sox bullpen from one of the worst, to probably one of the best.
This offseason, the Red Sox were able to sign relievers Matt Albers, Andrew Miller, Rich Hill, Dan Wheeler, Bobby Jenks, and most recently, Hideki Okajima to accompany the likes of Tim Wakefield, Daniel Bard, and Jonathan Papelbon in the 2011 Red Sox bullpen.
With Okajima, a left-handed pitcher being signed, this in all likelyhood marks the end the offseason madness for the Red Sox bullpen. The Sox will have 11 pitchers competing for seven spots in the 2011 bullpen.
Lets take a look into who will be in the bullpen, and what roles they will fill:Long Relief
Last season, the Red Sox had two (for a limited time) long relievers in the bullpen in Tim Wakefield and Scott Atchison.
With the 2011 pitching rotation already well established, it is almost a certainty that Tim Wakefield will be in the bullpen next season. Wakefield spent most of last season in the rotation with injuries to Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Atchison's role, however remains up for grabs. Atchison did a nice job for the Red Sox as he appeared in a career-high 43 games and recorded 60 innings for the Red Sox in 2010, managing a 4.50 ERA.
The Red Sox have signed Matt Albers away from the Baltimore Orioles on a split contract. Albers went 5-3 with a 4.52 ERA in 62 games with the Orioles. The Red Sox signed Albers with the expectation that he would provide more of a 5th inning/mop-up role for the Red Sox, much like Atchison did for them last season.
The big difference between them is that Atchison will turn 35 in March and Albers will turn 28 late this month. Atchison seems to have the slight edge in that Terry Francona knows what he is getting from him, versus the more unknown Albers. The Red Sox will hold an open competition for the mop-up roll with Albers and Atchison.
The Sox could send Albers down to the minor leagues and keep him on the 40-man roster, letting him pitch for AAA Pawtucket much like Robert Coello and Matt Fox. If Atchison loses out, he would likely refuse a minor league assignment and may demand his release if he doesn't win the spot.
However, at the same time, Albers provides youth and more innings than Atchison would likely give the Red Sox next season.
Long Relievers For 2011 Prediction: Tim Wakefield and Matt Albers
Last season, the Red Sox primarily used pitchers Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez as middle-relievers, before their departures via trade.
This decision seems to be a little bit easier than the Long Relief contest as the Red Sox have two adequate competitors in Dan Wheeler and Hideki Okajima.
Wheeler, was signed by the Red Sox away from the Tampa Bay Rays on a one-year, three million dollar contract. Wheeler put up tremendous numbers in 2010 as the Rays' set-up man as he managed a 2-4 record with a 3.35 ERA and an 8.6 SO/9. The Rhode Island native will likely serve as the team's primary sixth inning option.
The Sox decided not to change in the lefty specialist department as they recently brought back Hideki Okajima on a one-year contract.
Okajima turned in a horrible 2010 season, but soon bounced back in September. He recorded a career-worst 4.50 ERA and 6.5 SO/9. Okajima was signed by the Red Sox in 2006 out of Japan and broke in nicely with a 2.20 ERA as the team's setup man to Jonathan Papelbon. It's been downhill from there.
With the team already having two strong set-up men, Okajima will likely serve as the team's lefty specialist in 2011. Even though left-handers hit .278 against him last season, Okajima has held them to .214 mark over his career. Okajima did show signs of his old self in September as he held batters to a .200 average.
The Red Sox also brought in Rich Hill and Andrew Miller to compete with Oki as the lefty specialist, however they will likely start in AAA as starting pitchers. The Red Sox acquired Miller earlier this offseason in hopes that he would develop into the pitcher that everyone thought he could be.
Middle Relievers Prediction: Dan Wheeler and Hideki Okajima
Last season, the Red Sox used the tandem of Hideki Okajima and Daniel Bard as their set up men.
With Okajima's role likely being limited to just facing left handed batters, the Red Sox brought in Bobby Jenks, the former White Sox closer to team up with Daniel Bard as set-up men.
Jenks, was non-tendered by the White Sox earlier this offseason after recording 27 saves for them in 2010. Jenkswas replaced as the team's closer for a short while by Matt Thornton. Jenks was not a favorite of manager Ozzie Gullien (or, apparently, his son), and has decided to accept a set-up role with the Red Sox.
Despite recording a career worst 4.44 ERA last season, Jenks found himself an OTM favorite as he recorded a career high 10.4 SO/9 last season. Jenks will compliment Bard perfectly as they are both strikeout pitchers.
The other set-up man in all of this, Daniel Bard took our breath away once again in 2010. Bard recorded a 1.93 ERA last season including a 9.2 SO/9, and has shown us that he is the closer of the future. He will still look to get one more season of setup work before he takes over for Papelbon in 2012.
Set-Up Men Prediction: Bobby Jenks and Daniel Bard
Last season, Jonathan Papelbon served as the team's closer and as it appears now, nothing will change in that department.
Papelbon has had his name involved in several trade rumors this offseason, but right now, he is a Red Sox and will still be the team's closer next season according to Theo Epstein.
Papelbon had a less-than-stellar 2010 as he managed only a 5-7 record with a career high 3.90 ERA last season. Papelbon also allowed a career-high 7 home runs and seemed to blow an inordinate number of big games late (as we all know, any close Yankee game).
Papelbon has one year left on his contract and is owed about 11 million dollars this season. The Red Sox could chose to trade him and let Daniel Bard be the closer, however it is appearing more and more likely that Pap will close for the Red Sox next season
Closer Prediction: Jonathan Papelbon