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September Bullpen Struggles, Or, Why Junichi Tazawa Is Here

It's September, so rosters have expanded to make anyone on the 40-man roster eligible for time in the majors, meaning Boston's bullpen is loaded with Triple-A arms in addition to the ones that have been there all year. We're far enough in to September that the International League playoffs are now over for the Pawtucket Red Sox, who were eliminated by the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs on Saturday night in the semi-finals, meaning we may see even more minor leaguers called up before the month is out. Boston is having trouble with their bullpen despite (or in part because of) the expanded rosters, a unit that has given up a combined .267/.367/.487 line in the month, thanks in part to nine homers (and 38 runs!) allowed in 11 games. The starters, who have also been poor, have allowed just 33 runs despite pitching in more innings, to give you a sense of just how bad relievers not named Jonathan Papelbon have been as of late.

Daniel Bard has not pitched well as of late, but given that he is Daniel Bard, it's likely a temporary problem with poor timing. He should still be used in those places where Bard normally pitches, because a few bad frames doesn't make him a bad pitcher, just like a few bad losses doesn't make Boston a bad team. The others in the pen have less credibility in their abilities than Bard, though, and therefore, more help is needed in those areas.

Matt Albers was basically lights out as a reliever until August, when he started to pitch much more inconsistently. Over his last 16 games, dating back to August 1, his ERA is 10.80. While he is still striking out tons of hitters -- 9.7 per nine in that stretch and 9.2 per nine for the year -- his walk rate has climbed thanks to 5.4 walks per nine since August, and, when combined with the five homers he has given up since August 1 (despite his status as a groundballing righty) it's easy to see where he's fallen off. Albers is having trouble throwing quality strikes, and the walks and poor control are forcing him into hitter's counts. It's been such a significant reversal in both results and approach that it's easy to think something is amiss with him, be it mechanical or health-related.

Michael Bowden continues to excel in Pawtucket, but pitch poorly in the majors for Boston. In his 16 frames this year, he is striking out 7.3 batters per nine (above-average, good), but has also allowed allowed nine walks and three homers. He's up in September, though, as he is on the 40-man roster. The way he has pitched makes you think he was called up in order to improve Pawtucket's playoff chances, not Boston's. 

He's not alone in this, of course. Papelbon really is the only reliever who can be absolved from blame as of late, as Dan Wheeler, with a 4.15 ERA, no walks and just the one homer allowed has been their second-best reliever this month. These are all small sample sizes, so it's tough to get too worked up about specific things (excepting Albers, who has just looked... off, as mentioned above), but with the Rays creeping up on Boston and the wonders of expanded rosters before us, it's hard not to be a little hopeful when we see that Junichi Tazawa has been called up to Boston this morning.

Tazawa struggled initially after returning from Tommy John surgery this summer, as his command, like that of so many other TJ patients, was left in the operating room. It's been found, though, and between Portland and Pawtucket, Tazawa struck out 11.1 batters per nine while walking 2.4 per nine. Yes, these are minor league hitters, and therefore they won't be as tough on Tazawa as the real deal in the majors, but  with Bowden continuing to get chances to get outs despite years of minor league and major league numbers and adjustments telling us that it may not be happening, it's somewhat mystifying that a team in need of bullpen help had not yet called up a piece that has been available since Sunday morning. 

Tazawa is in the last year of the deal he signed with Boston originally, so knowing if he can help the 2012 team by giving him a chance in this small window in 2011 is important, too. Not as important as finding a way to plug the bullpen hole that has suddenly opened up, but if the two items collide and Tazawa produces, then that's two problems solved. Plus, with Bobby Jenks hitting the 60-day DL this month, there is a playoff roster spot available for the September call-up that earns it. Is Tazawa that guy? Like the other arms vying for the role, we'll know once he gets thrown into what has been an increasingly larger fire.