The clear expectation in the mind of Red Sox management heading into Spring Training was that left-hander Hideki Okajima would be breaking camp with the big league team come April. However, he reminded Red Sox fans of just how thoroughly he can mess up an inning during Sunday's 8-4 loss to the Minnesota Twins. And after said performance, management might want to reconsider.
Okajima was called on by manager Terry Francona to pitch a single inning in what was then a close 1-0 game. By the time he was done, the score had reached 5-0. Okajima allowed four earned runs on five hits against an incomplete Minnesota lineup. His performance on Sunday made us all think that his 2010 problems haven't quite been resolved just yet.
Francona summarized Okajima's situation (via Alex Speier):
"We need Oki to be a good pitcher. He’s competing with himself," manager Terry Francona told reporters in Fort Myers. "We’ve all seen what he can do when he’s right and how he can help that bullpen. That’s probably more how I look at it."
Even after Okajima's debacle on Sunday, it appears that the Red Sox still believe he has the upper hand in the battle for the LOOGY spot in the bullpen. However, Francona also notes that GM Theo Epstein "isn't afraid" to make a change if necessary.
While Oki is on a Major League contract, that still allows the team to send him down to the minor leagues if necessary, as he still has all three options remaining. This would allow Okajima to work on his splitter (or the Oki-Doki), which had been very effective before he was forced to abandon the malfunctioning pitch last season. Were the Sox to take this approach, Okajima would have to clear Optional Assignment Waivers given his service time in the majors. But if anyone is willing to take on his contract, the Sox should honestly jump at the opportunity.
Even though Okajima is the only Red Sox left-handed reliever that is on a Major League contract, the team still has a lot of options in camp who will certainly at least challenge Oki for that spot. The two main competitors include young Andrew Miller and veteran Dennys Reyes. Other southpaws include Rich Hill and Randy Williams, who will likely start the year out in the minor leagues. Though you shouldn't rule out Hill maybe making an appearance later in the season.
While Felix Doubront certainly deserves to be involved in this conversation, it is assumed throughout the organization that he will start in Triple-A Pawtucket to begin the season. Meanwhile, let's take a look at the case for these two main alternate lefties:
Since being acquired from the Florida Marlins earlier in the offseason, Andrew Miller has always been a very intriguing player. After being selected sixth overall out of the University of North Carolina by the Tigers in 2006, Miller has been primarily a starter over his career.
Miller's 2010 season with the Marlins was injury-plagued as he was limited to only nine appearances last season. In those games, Miller managed a 1-5 record with an ERA just shy of nine. 2010 was Miller's career-worst, and showed us all that he likely is not built to be a starter in the major leagues.
The Red Sox decided to take Miller on and hopefully convert him into a reliever when they decided first to trade for him, and then to sign him to a minor-league deal; allowing him to become used to working just a few innings rather than the six to seven he had to endure as a starter.
In yesterday's Grapefruit League matchup against the Twins, Miller pitched a scoreless sixth inning including a couple of strikeouts to keep the deficit at just three runs. While it may be early, you couldn't help but think that Miller was sending a signal to Terry Francona that he certainly is on the right track to becoming a reliable left-handed reliever he could call on sometime this season. If that's the case, then Francona seems to have gotten the message, doling out praise on Miller for his strong performance.
Weeks after signing a minor league contract with the Red Sox, left-hander Dennys Reyes made it known last week that he has a March 26 opt-out clause. If he doesn't make the team, then he can bolt to any team that will take him.
Reyes arrived a camp a few days ago, and has already pleased new pitching coach Curt Young, throwing a side session for the new pitching coach on Sunday after which he reportedly "felt great."
Of the two, Reyes has more Major League experience by far with fourteen years of big league experience to Miller's five. Reyes last pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2010, where his numbers against right handed batters were actually significantly better than those against left handed batters.
In 2010, Reyes held right handed batters to a staggering .177 average, .194 slugging percentage, and a .481 OPS. However when facing a left-handed batters, Reyes allowed a .307 average, .453 slugging percentage, and an .862 OPS.
You can argue that Red Sox right handers such as Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler fair well against lefties, which could permit the Sox to not have to worry about a LOOGY. However, Reyes' 2010 season was clearly a fluke, as he has held lefties to a .238 batting overage over his career, compared to the .263 career average he's allowed against righties. Indeed, when digging deeper we see that Reyes' peripherals last year clearly show a lot of good luck against righties and bad luck against lefties.
If Reyes is able to get left handers out again, Terry Francona may chose to go with experience and select Reyes, who would likely refuse a minor league assignment and opt-out by March 26, leaving the Red Sox with Miller, and yes, you guessed it, Oki.