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The Finest Bullpen Money Can't Buy

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This past off-season saw the departure of one prominent free agent from the Red Sox, as closer Jonathan Papelbon left for Philadelphia. I think most of us were happy the Red Sox didn't match the Phillies insane 4 year, $50 million contract (with a relatively easily obtainable fifth year at another $13 million), and yet it left the Red Sox with a sizable hole in their bullpen. Or so we thought.

The Red Sox went out and traded for a closer in Oakland's Andrew Bailey. It might be easier to think of him as Boston's Andrew Bailey if he had, oh I don't know, thrown a pitch yet for the Red Sox. But two months into the season and he hasn't. The oft-injured Bailey oft-injured his thumb and won't be seen on the Fenway mound for likely a few months yet.

So how could the Red Sox survive without Papelbon or Bailey? Would they have to run out and make another big trade? Could they promote some young flamethrower to the role? Would they have to move Daniel Bard back to the bullpen before seeing what he could offer as a starter?

None of the above. In fact, after a horrific first month (an MLB-worst 6.10 bullpen ERA), things have worked out rather well. Alfredo Aceves has had a few bumps, but has mostly been quite effective. Andrew Miller has become a weapon, a sentence nobody has written since he was in college, Rich Hill, Scott Atchison and on and on. In light of the pen's recent success and the Papelbon contract, I thought it might be useful to look at how some of the bigger contributors in the pen got to Boston.

Andrew Miller

As you likely know, Miller was a first round pick by the Tigers, the sixth overall selection in the 2006 draft. He was then the centerpiece of a deal that, along with Cameron Maybin and four other players, brought Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit from the Marlins. Three years and 220 innings of 5.89 ERA ball later the Marlins quit and dealt him to Boston for Dustin Richardson (who almost lasted in Miami for a calendar year --- so close!).

Through some contractual shenanigans Miller stayed with the Red Sox organization, which he had selected because he felt they offered the best chance for him to get his career back on track. The results were typical Miller, up and down and up and down again. But this season has seen a change in that pattern (at least so far). The erratic arms and legs everywhere Miller windup is gone, replaced with a simplified from-the-stretch technique. The sample size has been small, but the results have been spectacular: in 10.1 innings, Miller has given up three runs, struck out 13, and walked only two. Not a bad return for little money and a guy the Red Sox never wanted in Richardson.

Scott Atchison

Atchison was drafted twice by the Mariners. He didn't sign after going in the 36th round in 1994 draft, but he did four years later in the 49th round of the 1998 draft. As a 49th round pick, Mariners gave him a bucket of un-fried chicken to sign. "Fry it your damn self," they said. He finally made the majors in '04, but wasn't particularly good and found himself out of the Seattle organization just two years later. He signed with the Giants but that didn't really last either. In December of 2007 he signed with the Red Sox and has been with the Boston organization ever since, though never really as anything but a last resort. He's never made more than the $510,000 he's making this season, peanuts for a major league player, and like Miller he was available at different points essentially free of charge to any team that wanted him. And yet here he is, 0.93 ERA and all.

Vicente Padilla

Padilla used to be a good-to-decent starting pitcher for the Phillies and later for the Rangers and Dodgers. His is probably the biggest name of this bunch but not for relieving, having thrown over 90 percent of his 1,500 major league innings as a starter. Padilla threw all of 8.1 innings last year for the Dodgers and was basically out of baseball until the Red Sox signed him as the 712th potential member of the starting rotation. Instead, he's somehow worked his way into becoming the set-up man. His stats aren't spectacular, but he's got the job done (for the most part) and for almost no money or risk. Again, Padilla was available to every major league team.

Alfredo Aceves

Aceves was initially drafted by the Blue Jays but opted to stay in Mexico. Then he was a Yankee, but hurt himself in a bike accident and was non-tendered by New York. He became a free agent and signed with the Red Sox. After trying to make the rotation this spring he was placed into the pen and, after Bailey got hurt, was made the closer. His overall stats aren't spectacular either, but he's discovered about four or five miles per hour on his fastball that weren't there before, and when he spots his pitches well he's very hard to hit.

Rich Hill

More like Miller than any of the other guys, Hill was a highly though of fourth round draft pick by the Cubs. He pitched in Chicago and then did a year in Baltimore (it's kind of baseball's purgatory) after the Cubs sold him. He signed with the Cardinals but was cut before he ever pitched for them. The Red Sox then signed him as a free agent where he changed into a full time reliever and was a short lived success story last season before shredding his arm and requiring Tommy John surgery. He was a free agent about a billion times, but most recently this past off season when the Red Sox re-signed him.

Franklin Morales

Morales was signed out of Venezuela by Colorado. He pitched as a starter and reliever for the Rockies before the Red Sox traded cash for him (how is that different than being sold?). He too has been solid if not spectacular but, again, for no money or risk. Keeping or cutting Franklin Morales will cost the Boston Red Sox about the same: almost nothing.

* * *

The Red Sox bullpen is currently 16th in baseball in reliever ERA. That's not great by any measure, but after their awful start, their 2.19 reliever ERA in May is second in the American League and third in all of baseball. That's a pretty good turn-around and also a strong reason why the team has gone from 12-19 to the game above .500 where we find them today.

The point is, if you know where to look, good relievers are available just about anywhere and for very little money. They can be cast offs from other teams, failed starters, or minor league lifers. Not all pitchers who fit one of those descriptions are going to be good relievers, but if you have good scouting and smart analytical minds at work, you can probably find a few. The Red Sox sure have.

Oh, and one more thing. Remember the Phillies, who I mentioned at the top of the article? Their bullpen's ERA in May: 5.26, last in baseball. We could laugh about that, but being Red Sox fans, we're above that sort of thing.

(he he he)