Going into Spring Training last year, the Red Sox' relief corps was a huge question mark. Not only because of the questionable quality of the guys guaranteed spots, but also because nobody really knew who would be the last few guys out of the pen. The Sox had signed a small army of relief pitchers to small deals over the offseason, hoping to find some serviceable arms.
In a way, the Sox are in something of a similar situation. To be sure, the top of the pen is much improved with the additions of Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler being much more sure things than Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez. But at the bottom, though there are frontrunners, it's hard to say who will really end up filling those positions in the long run.
By our best guess, given Terry Francona's tendency to support his veterans, we have to give the spots to the incumbents to start off. And with last year's crop of players, they may have been reasonable choices. But this year's crop of players is something else entirely. Where last year's bunch had 40-year-olds, guys long removed from the majors, and career fringe players, this year is filled with reclamation projects with greater potential, veterans still in the effective parts of their careers, and young players who have had success in recent years.
So these incumbents, are they the best options? Are they even close? Let's take a look at the options.
First, here are some of the more relevant numbers for the most likely candidates, courtesy of Fangraphs:
|2008-2010 xFIP vs. L
|Long Reliever/Spot Starter?
(May have to be viewed in wide site view)
Now let's consider the space we actually have in the bullpen, and what we need. By my reckoning, Dan Wheeler acts as the cutoff point to have a safe spot in the pen. He had a better 2010 than any of the other candidates by far, and comes in around the lowest over the past three years.
That leaves, assuming two backup outfielders, one backup infielder, and a backup catcher, three spots. At the top of the pen, Jenks, Papelbon, Bard, and Wheeler account for all the "general" relievers, who can be expected to deal with the majority of the work load starting with the seventh inning. This leaves the last spots free to be used for specialization.
Of those three spots, then, it makes sense to set one aside for a long reliever, and one for a lefty specialist. Let's deal with those roles first.
The incumbent here, Tim Wakefield, would likely be pretty difficult to dislodge from his roster spot. With his many years of service, Wake has earned a reputation for being both one of the nicest and most loyal players on the team. Long story short, any sort of cut made here could have relatively large PR consequences, if nothing else.
But still, it's hard to say that Wakefield would be the most effective man to fill this role. To be fair to Wake, xFIP doesn't exactly portray knuckleballers such as himself fairly. Still, he's been relatively ineffective in the last season-and-a-half, and at age 44, there are many other things to worry about. How well can he deal with bunts? Is he going to be reliable as a long reliever/spot starter type needs to be? How is Salty going to deal with the Knuckleball?
At this point, it may be wiser to turn elsewhere here. The name that really jumps off the list for me is Alfredo Aceves. If the former Yankee looks healthy to start the year, then he just makes too much sense. He's had decent numbers in his first few seasons in the league, and at 28, is just entering his prime. With the team already planning to stretch him out as a starter, the only thing other than his health that would give me pause is his ground ball numbers, and even there he has Wake beat.
If Aceves is not healthy though, it's hard to say whether Scott Atchison and Matt Albers have track records long or good enough to warrant moving Wakefield. In such a situation, it might just be better to hold on to the fan favorite.
Though Hideki Okajima has filled this spot in recent years, after three straight years of decline culminating in last year's disastrous campaign must at least have left him at risk.
His biggest competition will likely be Dennys Reyes, a lefty reliever with the Sox on a Minor League deal. Really, he and Okajima share a lot in common. They've both seen diminishing results the last few years, though Reyes can thank a noticeably smaller BABIP and HR/FB% for his much better results. But it's this sort of easy comparison that should make it so much easier to choose Reyes.
First off, he's just had better numbers. Over the past three years, he has had better results, better peripherals, and has been better against lefties. Reyes also has the most recent success against lefties, with a 3.60 xFIP against them in 2010 (Okajima's 4.56 mark is rather less impressive).
He also figures to play much better in Fenway. Though his very high walk rates are enough to make anyone hesitate, he also has the ground ball rate to avoid getting hurt too badly in the long run. The Sox project to have a pretty average infield defensively with at least one elite defender in Pedroia, so they should be equipped to take advantage of his grounders as well. Add in the year-and-a-half of age that Reyes has on Oki, and it's hard to find much in favor of Oki.
The Final Spot
With Aceves and Reyes in, that leaves five guys left to fill in the final spot. At this point, we're just looking for who can contribute the most, not a guy to fill a role, necessarily.
Let's get two guys out of the way immediately: Rich Hill and Andrew Miller will most likely not be joining the Red Sox until they've had a chance to be retooled in the minors. They are definitely reclamation projects, and not the types the team should take a risk with throwing to the Major League lions to be feasted on.
That leaves Albers, Atchison, Okajima, and Wakefield.
If Reyes has the spot against lefties, I'd like to think Okajima would be out of the running. He just hasn't shown any ability to get batters out the last couple of years, and the idea that his oddball delivery has been "figured out" just makes a lot of sense.
The decision between Albers and Atchison would likely come down to Spring Training performance, with the edge going to Atchison just based on his having already performed decently for the team last year.
But my pick would likely be Wakefield. First off, this helps avoid the PR problems that cutting Wake would invite. But it also lets you roll the dice with the guy most likely to randomly have a good season in limited time. He also provides the ability to just absorb innings if necessary, which could be useful in extra inning games or should Aceves end up being needed shortly after his last long appearance.
Generally speaking, this isn't a player who's likely to be used often. Most situations will be well provided for by the other six men in the pen. So why not use it towards the fan favorite who can still provide six innings when called upon?
So that's my vote: Aceves, Reyes, and Wakefield. Who do you all think should make the cut?