Now that Jonathan Papelbon has left town to pursue his life long dream of pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies, the Red Sox find themselves in an unfamiliar position. Five Second Quick Quiz: Who was the closer before Jonathan Papelbon? ... four ... three ... two ... one ... Keith Foulke! I'll give you a bit longer for this next one. Who was the closer before Foulke? [plants coffee beens, harvests them, roasts them, grinds them, makes pot of coffee] Mmm... OK. Did you get Byung-Hyun Kim? The judges would have also accepted Scott Williamson.
The point is we Sox fans have been a bit spoiled over the last six seasons. That's nothing compared to some fanbases but it's a pretty significant stretch considering the well known volatility of relievers. Still, if Papelbon had to go, this off season was a good time for it. This is one of the best markets for relief pitching in a long while. Even with Papelbon, Joe Nathan, Heath Bell and Jonathan Broxton off the market there are still numerous options available.
Paps was a hell of a pitcher for the Red Sox over that time but it's time to find his replacement. Here are six relievers who could and might end up in the back of Boston's bullpen in 2012.
A quick note, when talking about late inning relievers I'm keeping it simple and looking at K rate, BB rate, homers, and GB percentage.
We've been hearing about Madson pretty much since we started hearing about the disconnect between Papelbon and the Red Sox. Not that Madson is much of a bargain. He reportedly had a 4 year $44 million deal with Papelbon's Phillies before something happened and the deal fell apart. That won't change what Madson is looking for, but it might alter what he can get. One thing we know is that kind of money is unlikely to fly with the Sox this off season. For one thing, you would think if they were prepared to that much to Madson they'd have first offered it to Papelbon. For another, the Red Sox don't have much in the way of payroll room so their ability to give big money to a reliever is contingent upon them shedding salary in other areas. For instance, if David Ortiz opts to leave then a guy like Madson becomes a bigger possibility.
As for Madson the pitcher, well, he's pretty much the biggest name left on the market now. He's does all the things you want to see out of a reliever, strikes batters out, doesn't walk many, and gets lots of grounders. He has had injury problems, but mostly flukey kind of things and nothing to his shoulder or elbow. He's a Boras guy though so he's going to get paid. If the Red Sox don't sign Ortiz then this might become an option. Otherwise, it's hard to see where the money comes from.
Although he isn't a free agent, the Sox have been linked to Bailey this off season. With good reason too. Bailey is a high quality reliever, though not of Papelbon's class. His career K/9 of 9 is excellent and he is stingy with the walks as well. His problem is twofold. First, he has a significant injury history. Since throwing 83 innings in 2009, Bailey has thrown 49 and 41.2 the last two seasons, respectively. In contrast to Madson's flukey injuries, Bailey has had an elbow strain and was examined by Dr. James Andrews last season. That's scary stuff. So the Red Sox would have to be reasonably sure of his health. The second problem is, as I said above, he isn't a free agent. The Red Sox would have to trade for him. Considering his injury history (what the acquiring Red Sox will likely focus on) and his potential (what the A's will pay attention to when giving him up) it might be hard for the two sides to match up. Still, this is an intriguing option.
You know him, you love him, you do/don't want him as a starter. Depending on whom you listen to, the Red Sox may or may not be exploring the idea of moving Bard to the rotation. While it's possible Bard joins the rotation or remains in his current role and sets up for another reliever, the smart money might just be on Bard becoming the closer himself. He has experience in Boston and has thrived out of the bullpen if not in the actual closers role. While the results haven't been spectacular, Bard's stats show he is about the same pitcher he normally is in high leverage situations, the difference being a slight uptick in his walk rate. The Sox will have feelers out for other relievers, and they may prefer to avoid moving Bard out of the role which he's been so good at, but Bard represents at least a fall back plan in case the organization fails to acquire another reliever.
The upside to Cordero is a pitcher who won't require a commitment on the level of a Madson or Papelbon while allowing Bard to either remain in the vital set up role or jump to the pen. But there is tons of downside here. Cordero's K rate dropped consistently from 12.22 in 2007 to 5.43 last season. That's more 'fell off a cliff' than dropped. That plus Cordero will be 37 next May and it might be best to steer clear of this landmine.
Speaking of landmines, Brad Lidge. Lidge will probably always be known for allowing the most gargantuan homer you've ever seen to Albert Pujols at the most inopportune time for his team. I'm hearing it's due to land any minute. The good thing about Lidge is he still strikes out tons of guys (10.7 K/9 last year and 11.95 on his career). Also, he is a year and a half younger than Cordero. The downside is pretty obvious if you've ever seen him pitch. He walks people. Lots and lots of people. Also, he gives up some bombs. And he's been hurt a lot. On days when his slider isn't working he's a pitching machine on Very Fast. You might swing and miss the first few pitches but once you time it, hitting it a ton isn't hard to do. In short, Lidge's stats aren't that of an awful pitcher. He has his flaws for certain, but he could be a useful addition to a bullpen. The problem comes when you entrust him with an important situation. He has four true outcomes: strikeout, walk, moonshot, or his elbow comes unplugged. Three of those four aren't good.
Rodriguez does all the things you want in a closer. He throws hard, or at least he used to so he still has that reputation, he strikes batters out (11.18 K/9 career, 9.92 K/9 in 2011), doesn't walk tons of guys (pretty consistently around 3.5 BB/9) and has recently improved at generating the all important ground balls (51.8% last year). So what's the problem? In August of 2010 he assaulted the father of his girlfriend (and the mother of his twin fourth and fifth children). He later defied a court order to stay away from his girlfriend. He was placed on the Mets restricted list and blah blah blah. So Rodriguez at least by public reputation has some issues. If he is over those he probably represents the best pitcher per dollar on this list who isn't currently on the Red Sox roster.
So, OTM, who do you want to see on the Fenway mound when the 9th inning rolls around?