The Red Sox bullpen was supposed to be better than this. Performing below expectations hasn't been the problem so much as the result of the real issue, injuries. Franklin Morales has logged just 12 innings, Joel Hanrahan is out for the year with Tommy John surgery, Craig Breslow missed a large chunk of the year's start, Andrew Bailey missed time and possibly returned before the aftereffects of his injury had cleared, and now Andrew Miller is out for the year with ligament damage in his foot. It's not a surprise that, even with depth to pull from, things have not gone as planned for Boston's bullpen when you consider the above.
This isn't the time to wonder what could have different, though: the Sox loaded up and had the blocks for a phenomenal bullpen, but things just didn't work out that way. No, instead it's time to think about what needs to be different going forward. Bailey might very well round into form now that his velocity is back and he's further removed from his injury , giving the Red Sox another high-quality option, but that still leaves them short of where the pen was supposed to be, and it's not a guarantee, either. So, where do the Sox go from here, as a first place team in the American League East, one with an obvious and fixable flaw?
There are multiple options, both internal and external, and we're likely to hear a lot about both in the coming weeks, given the non-waiver trade deadline is on July 31. Even before the severity of Miller's injury was known, the Red Sox were reportedly on the lookout for bullpen upgrades, and they've already shown a willingness to dip into the Triple-A reliever stream when necessary. So, we're left with a few obvious paths: trade for help, promote help, or do a little of both.
There are some obvious call-ups who could maybe help out the Red Sox. Pedro Beato is already on the 40-man roster, and has pitched well both at Pawtucket and in limited major-league duty with the Red Sox since he was acquired last year from the Mets. There is Anthony Carter, who has been far better than his 4.74 ERA indicates, as six of the 20 runs he's allowed in 38 innings of work came in one early-season appearance. There's also Ryan Rowland-Smith, but he won't be available for a few weeks more after undergoing an emergency appendectomy on June 25. Chris Martin, whom the Sox signed out of independent leagues back in 2011, has struck out 25 batters in 26 innings with just five walks allowed since his promotion to Triple-A. There are options here, and while none of them are necessarily a bullpen-defining arm, they can help in ways the Red Sox need given the injuries they're dealing with. With Jonathan Diaz now outrighted off of the 40-man, there is space for one of them, too.
Trading for help could get expensive. Matt Thornton, a lefty the Red Sox have been linked to already, wouldn't necessarily be expensive: the favor the Red Sox would be doing the White Sox in that deal is assuming the rest of Thornton's 2013 $5.5 million salary, as well as the responsibility for the $1 million buyout for his 2014 option, should it be invoked. He would cost a prospect, but said prospect wouldn't necessarily be one that Red Sox fans would lament losing -- this is where the likes of Brandon Jacobs or Keury De La Cruz could come in, as they require 40-man protection on a team that doesn't have the space, and are promising enough to maybe get the job done in a salary-based deal like Thornton's could be.
For a high-quality reliever with fewer questions and more control than Thornton, though, things could get pricey. Not that the Red Sox are necessarily going to look into Jonathan Papelbon, but the Phillies would likely want help restocking their farm system in exchange for him and his deal, and might even hand over some cash to guarantee that they get promising kids in return. Given this, it's more likely the Sox go after someone like Thornton, or attempt to pull in another arm like Breslow who does good work but flies under the radar, comparatively.
Rather than give up prospects for relief help, the Sox might be better off promoting prospects for the same. There are a few starting pitchers in the minors right now who could temporarily convert to relief, a la Justin Masterson, in order to boost the Sox' pen down the stretch. It would also allow these arms to get a taste of pitching in the majors, and in turn help the Red Sox sort through the glut of starting options they have in the high minors.
It doesn't have to be Rubby De La Rosa or Allen Webster making the shift to relief, either: the futures of those two are, at present, firmly rooted in a rotation until their performance dictates otherwise, and their chief responsibility in 2013 is to be there if Boston needs a starting pitcher to step in from the minors. The job of switching to relief falls more into the territory of two other Triple-A starters: Drake Britton and Brandon Workman.
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It might be tough to convert Workman, in the sense you don't want him to lose any development time as a starter. However, there are reasons to think it would simply be speeding up a process that's inevitable anyway. Workman has succeeded in the minors to this point, and finds himself in Triple-A where he's still missing bats and, excepting one horrific appearance, has been good about keeping the ball in the park. He might be talented enough to remain a starter, but think about the Boston rotation for a moment: the same five arms populating it in 2013 will be under contract for 2014, assuming Jon Lester's option is picked up, and Workman is already behind Webster and De La Rosa for a rotation spot opening, and will soon be behind Anthony Ranaudo as well. Relief might be his way of getting to the majors, and if the Sox switch him over to that role now out of need, he can always be stretched out next spring so as to keep him on a starter's path. If he takes to relief and turns out to be of more use there given Boston's roster construction, that's also to the good, especially since, unlike say, Daniel Bard, he would have been placed in relief for a reason other than fear he wasn't capable of anything else.
As for Britton, there are long-term needs that might press him into relief that coincide with Boston's present-day needs. Britton has one option left that will be used up in 2014, should he spend 20 days in the minors. He tends to adjust slowly to new levels, meaning he might not consistently impress as a starter at Triple-A until sometime late into next year, then there would still be the wait for him to adjust to the majors after that, with little time to shuttle him back-and-forth as needed. Converting him to relief could ease his transition not just to Triple-A, but make it so that he could shift to the majors and give the Red Sox a left-handed arm that they need.
Britton keeps the ball on the ground -- he induced 1.3 times as many outs on the ground as in the air at Double-A Portland -- and was outright dominant against his fellow lefties at the level, with a 1.21 ERA and 30 strikeouts against just six walks. He's not quite as good against right-handers, and this is going to be what forces him into a relief role anyway -- there's little reason to hold off on that inevitability when the Red Sox could use a southpaw in the pen now.
Neither Workman nor Britton needs to be promoted to Boston right now and shoved in the bullpen. They could be transitioned into relief work at Triple-A Pawtucket over the next few weeks, while the Sox explore the trade market and rely on the likes of Beato, Carter, or Martin to hold the fort until Workman or Britton show themselves to be ready. Transitioning these two won't mess with Boston's long-term plans, as the Sox have other starting prospects ahead of them on the depth chart, and also would be able to retain more of their prospects thanks to turning away from expensive trades. It makes a whole lot of sense for both the Red Sox' present-day situation and their future to weather this storm with the help of some of the assets on hand, as 2013 is about 2013, but it's also about the future.
Read more Red Sox:
- The sustainable side of Jose Iglesias’ success at the plate
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- MLB trade deadline: Who could the Red Sox trade on July 31?
- Is Boston's bullpen overused? Or are we all just crazy?