Despite the common thought that teams should avoid paying top dollars to fill out the bullpen, a solid relief corps can go a long way during the grind of a 162 game season. Even the best starting pitchers aren't going to have it every day, and even the most potent lineups are going to struggle to score runs. Having multiple arms to rely on in the bullpen can mean the difference between a playoff berth and watching from your TV for a borderline contender. Looking at the current Red Sox roster, the depth the organization has in major-league-ready pitching bodes extremely well for the bullpen. It remains to be seen if they will target another reliever, but they certainly don't have to at this point. Now that enough arms have been acquired, though, it comes down to how they should assembled to give Boston the best chance at returning to the promised land in 2014.
The very back of the bullpen is the complete opposite of a question mark. Despite some initial worries due to his lack of experience in the closer role, Koji Uehara did everything imaginable to dispel those concerns and put together one of the best seasons ever by a relief pitcher. In case of injury or fatigue, the Ben Cherington recently brought in some great 9th inning insurance in Edward Mujica. The former Cardinal is kind of a poor man's Uehara, in that he also limits walks at a high rate, allowing free passes to less than five percent of his opposing batters in every season since 2009. Between him and Junichi Tazawa, the Red Sox have two outstanding late-inning, right-handed options to get to Uehara. Over the past few years, Mujica has transformed himself into much more of a ground ball pitcher, making him a better option to come in with runners on base than the line-drive-prone Tazawa. Despite his low strikeout rate, Craig Breslow proved himself to be an outstanding late-inning option from the left side, and can face batters of either handedness. A three-headed attack to pitch the 7th and 8th innings is a highly enviable luxury for the Red Sox this year.
Beyond those big four at the back-end, the Red Sox have plenty of options to fill out the middle of their bullpen as well. As a total bullpen nerd, the player I am most excited about heading into the 2014 season is Andrew Miller, whose season unfortunately ended in early July, after being one of the keys to the bullpen in the first half of the 2013 season. After failing as a starter, the former top prospect has thrived in the bullpen, and struck out more than 35 percent of his opposing batters this past season. He has the upside to emerge as a legit late-inning threat next year. Also a lock to make the middle relief corp is new acquisition Burke Badenhop, who was traded here by the Brewers in Cherington's first real move of the offseason. The right-hander is somewhat similar to Breslow, in that he won't rack up strikeouts, but he'll limit walks and induce weak contact. With a career 54.6 percent groundball rate, it would make sense to see him a lot with baserunners on in hopes of a big double play. If they wanted to carry a 13th pitcher (which seems unlikely), Franklin Morales could find his way into the bullpen as a LOOGY. In 2013 he allowed a .184/.262/.184 line against lefties with a 13/2 K/BB ratio.
Photo Courtesy of Jared Wickerham
Depth in the middle relief area could be the real strength of this team next year. Beyond Morales, who could very well be on the outside looking in at the start of the season, there are some intriguing arms who will start the year in Pawtucket's bullpen. Rubby De La Rosa could profile as a very good starting pitcher going forward, but with his style of pitching and an already-loaded Pawtucket rotation, he will probably be relegated to the bullpen in 2014. If he can show some ability to limit his walks in AAA, he could be the first called up to the majors when a spot opens up during the season. There is also Drake Britton, who was a big part of the bullpen down the stretch in 2013. Despite pitching to a 3.86 ERA and 3.06 FIP this past season, there doesn't look to be room for the young southpaw on the roster right now. After only pitching in 5-1/3 innings at Pawtucket last year, though, some extra seasoning wouldn't be the worst thing for the 24-year-old's development. Further down the depth chart are interesting arms like Alex Wilson, Dalier Hinojosa and Brayan Villarreal.
Filling out the Red Sox bullpen will be their swingman, someone who can come in and pitch multiple innings if the starting pitcher falters early, and can also make emergency starts if necessary. Right now, the Red Sox have six major-league starters, in addition to the four they have in the minors. It seems to be almost assumed that one of them will be dealt, but it doesn't seem necessary. It's almost a certainty that one of the pitchers in the rotation will be hurt at some point, and having experienced depth could be a huge advantage for Boston. In the meantime, Ryan Dempster has pitched out of the bullpen before, and would be fine in that role. It would also give Brandon Workman some more time to start in Pawtucket, a role that hopefully he can stick in for the future. Yes, Dempster would be an expensive long reliever/swingman, but there isn't any obvious place where that money could be reallocated. If they did decide to trade someone like Dempster of Peavy, Workman would come up and join the bullpen in the swingman role after being stretched out in Spring Training. If it was Peavy that was dealt, there could even be the argument to start Workman in the rotation over Dempster to start the year, giving the team some more upside amongst their starting pitchers.