It might have seemed odd to acquire Joel Hanrahan from the Pirates when the Red Sox were already overflowing with bullpen options. Additional oddness might have ensued when Hanrahan was immediately named the team's closer, displacing presumed stopper Andrew Bailey, and forcing him into a setup role. Focusing on improving the bullpen further, though, fits in with Boston's plan, especially when what they gave up to acquire a single season of Hanrahan was of little consequence to them.
Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Stolmy Pimentel, and Ivan De Jesus all have differing levels of upside, but they also have plenty of reasons to be wary of them. Melancon's team control means little if he can't pitch in the AL East successfully, and while he threw plenty of strikes following his early season meltdown in 2012, there are plenty of reasons to think they weren't all quality strikes -- his ERA, batting average on balls in play, and inability to consistently strand inherited runners points to as much. His trade value might never have been higher for Boston, contextually, than it was at the moment he was sent packing. Sands has a long swing, and there are questions about his ability to be more than a platoon bat, backup first baseman, and fourth outfielder. While the Pirates can afford to take a chance on someone like that, the Sox have other options, better options, even, already on board, both in the majors and in Pawtucket.
De Jesus was designated for assignment more than a month before the trade, and no one bit. He cleared waivers, survived the Rule 5 draft, and failed to bump an obviously flawed player -- Pedro Ciriaco -- from Boston's utility depth chart. As for Pimentel, while he is possibly the most-likely to succeed of the bunch, Boston's excess of pitching depth in the high minors allowed for his departure, especially given a few other roster considerations. Pimentel's final option year was 2013, meaning he needed to be major-league ready by 2014 or the Red Sox were going to have to figure out how to keep him or deal him. When combined with a 40-man roster that was already overflowing, it made sense to move him now, especially while his stock had at least moved from "hopeless" to "future reliever."
Boston cleared out the back-end of their 40-man roster, making space for Stephen Drew to be their shortstop, while bringing in an upgrade in the bullpen in Hanrahan, and a player they think is going to be better at Ivan De Jesus' job than De Jesus would have been. They didn't give up nothing at all, but that's not how trades tend to work outside of fantasy leagues.
The upgrade part is the key at the moment. Boston had plenty of bullpen options, sure, but that doesn't mean there isn't room to improve. Melancon wasn't even guaranteed a spot in the 2013 bullpen at this point -- he was one of many arms vying for the seventh and final opening, and, like all of those pitchers who aren't Daniel Bard, he was all out of options. Now, one of those pitchers has been removed from the equation, and the back-end of the bullpen includes Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey, Junichi Tazawa, and Koji Uehara because of it. Add in Craig Breslow, and five of seven are already in the mix. That leaves room for starting depth left-hander Franklin Morales, as well as one of Alfredo Aceves, Andrew Miller, Clayton Mortensen, or Daniel Bard.
The Red Sox don't have to decide right now just who that seventh is going to be. If Bard pitches well in the spring, and looks like the Bard of old -- or, at least, an approximation of that -- then he's going to be the guy. That means there's no room for Miller, Mortensen, or Aceves unless one of the others begins the year on the disabled list. That's a pretty great situation to be in, where the back-end of the bullpen is absolutely stacked, loaded with plenty of depth and options to setup and close, while the last reliever in the pen could be something like a lefty to dominate lefties like Miller, a successful long man like Aceves, or, if a little luck can come Boston's way, a resurgent Daniel Bard.
Why the need for all of these relief options, though? Think about Boston's rotation. It is hypothetically in a good place, with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz primed for bounce back campaigns, Ryan Dempster's consistent hovering around the 200-inning mark in place, and a healthy John Lackey and second-year Felix Doubront at the back. That could just as easily backfire, though: maybe Dempster is only good for five-plus innings per start because of the switch to the AL. Maybe Doubront continues to do well, but only in those short five or six inning bursts. Maybe Lackey is now only a 175 inning per year guy, even if his stuff has come back post-surgery. Maybe Lester doesn't ever figure things out again, and you don't know if he's going eight innings or four on a given night.
With so many questions in the rotation, the fewer questions in the bullpen, the better. There are even pen questions this helps to answer. Koji Uehara is dominating, but with his history, he's unlikely to pitch on consecutive nights. That's no problem, though, as there are other setup options around even if Bard doesn't rebound. And, if he does, then Boston has a clear path to the closer even on nights when the starter can't make it into the fifth, or during series where the pen has to be leaned on heavily against a tough offense.
Why Hanrahan as closer, though? The Pirates believe, and, given how this has played out, it's safe to think the Sox do, as well, that Hanrahan is a much better pitcher in high-leverage situations like that. In September, when the Pirates were out of it, Hanrahan was nowhere near as good, and his usage was inconsistent because of it. If this sounds familiar to Red Sox fans, it's because the same criticisms and concerns existed with Jonathan Papelbon back when he closed for Boston. Bailey, on the other hand, has been open about the fact that while closing is his preference, he just wants to pitch on a team that he can help win, regardless of inning. Plus, Bailey will likely get his shot at closing again in 2014, after Hanrahan departs and Bailey is setting himself up for a similarly large fireman's payday.
So, the Red Sox put Hanrahan in the role he's best-suited for. They temporarily take a pitcher who has shown an ability to close in a setup role. This pitcher, Bailey, might actually be a better hurler than Hanrahan, as his career 2.47 ERA and 3.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio attest, but that's to the good of the Sox. Bailey won't be restricted to the ninth inning, and can be used where and when he's needed. So can Tazawa and Uehara, and the group can pave the way for Hanrahan to finish things off night after night. And, should Bailey, who has a history of injury, go down once more in 2013, the bullpen won't have to shuffle around in the same way it did in 2012. Hanrahan will still have his role, and setup innings will be redistributed among arms that were pitching them anyway.
Hanrahan might not be filling an obvious need, but his presence, now that it's here, is obvious. The bullpen is stronger, and that in turn can help out a rotation with plenty of questions surrounding it. Boston's depth is improved, and they've placed pitchers in situations that should best suit them, all while putting in insurance policies against the failure of arms like Bard or Aceves to get back to their 2011 forms, or for Miller to replicate his season, or whatever as-of-now unseen event should unfold in the pen. Given the price, and Boston's needs to improve where they can in the present without sacrificing the future, that's more than you can ask for.