If you’ve followed me for any amount of time, you may have noticed by now that I have a weird fascination with the bit players on the team. I love the spring training battles for the backup middle infielders, or trying to figure out who the last man to make the Opening Day bullpen will be. It seems boring, but these players matter. Sure, on a bad team, they aren’t going to make a difference. But hitting on these types of players can make a good team a great one.
That brings me to next year’s bullpen, which at this point looks to be pretty close to set. Now that Koji Uehara is officially coming back for two more years, the back-end of the unit is set with him, Junichi Tazawa and Edward Mujica. They could probably use one more middle reliever and a more reliable lefty than Tommy Layne. In an ideal world, Andrew Miller would fill both roles, but with the money he’s likely to command, that appears to be a long shot. Burke Badenhop could very well come back, though, which would go a long way towards solidifying the middle relief. Bullpens are notoriously volatile, however, and it’s always nice to have as many capable bodies as possible. While Boston could easily fill in the blanks with their young starters like Anthony Ranaudo, Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, it would be better to give as many of them as possible another chance to stick as a starter. Obviously, it would be nice to do this without spending a lot of money, too. Luckily there are a few interesting names who could be had on minor-league deals or cheap one-year contracts.
Here is the most interesting buy-low candidate for me. Hochevar has spent most of his career as a disappointing back-end starting pitcher on bad Kansas City teams. Then, in 2013, he transitioned to the bullpen and absolutely dominated. Call him something of a Wade Davis 1.0. He wound up appearing in 58 games that year, tossing 70-1/3 innings total, and put up a ridiculous 1.92 ERA (215 ERA+). His peripherals supported this improvement, too, as he struck out almost a third of the batters he faced while walking just 6.5 percent. All while adding a full three miles per hour to his fastball, bringing his average velocity up above 95 MPH. So, why would this guy come cheap, you ask? He didn't throw a single regular season pitch in 2014, succumbing to an elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery during spring training. It’s impossible to know how someone will react to this kinda procedure, but on a cheap one-year deal so he can re-establish his value, it could be worth it. If he’s even partially as effective as he was in 2013, Hochevar could go a long way towards solidifying this bullpen.
I’ve been a huge Crain fan for a few years now, and was adamant about my desire for the Red Sox to sign him last winter. It turned out to be a good decision not to, as he also didn't throw a pitch in 2014. In fact, his last game was June 29, 2013. That’s obviously worrisome, but it also means that he should be able to be signed to a non-guaranteed deal. And if he can come back from his shoulder injury, he can be a huge asset. Just take a look at his numbers from 2011-2013. In that time, he put up a 2.10 ERA (205 ERA+) with a 3.09 FIP, a 29 percent K-rate and an 11 percent BB-rate. That’s a high-leverage reliever. Shoulder injuries can be terrifying, and have the potential to sap away all of the skills that led to those numbers. But if he flames out in the spring, it has no lasting effects on the team. If he’s truly fully recovered from his ailments, he’s a legitimate high-leverage reliever on a team that has championship aspirations.
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Of all of the names on this list, Betancourt has the longest track record. Basically, that’s a nice way of saying he’s old. At 39-years-old, the former Rocky and Indian is nearing the end of his rope. Although he’s coming off of an injury, there’s a chance that could work in his favor, as he was able to give his arm an entire year’s rest. That’s probably wishful thinking, but this is another guy who’s upside could be worth taking a flier on. From 2011-2013, he was a premier relief pitcher in the game, posting a 3.09 ERA (149 ERA+) in Colorado, even spending some time as a closer. The bad news is that he was clearly starting to hit his decline by 2013, as his K-rate, BB-rate, FIP and ERA were all among the worst marks of his career. He’s not as desirable as Crain or Hochevar, but there’s still a chance lightning could strike for Betancourt.
There’s probably a decent chance that you completely forgot Burnett existed, and that’s okay. Unlike the other names here who spent 2014 on the disabled list, Burnett spent 2014 and 2013 on the DL. Because of that, there’s no way a team could be comfortable guaranteeing him an Opening Day roster spot. However, he could wind up being one of the steals on the minor-league market, as he was one of the better relief pitchers in the game before he had his injuries. There’s no telling if he could get back to his old form, but it’s surely worth a shot. What works in his favor is that he was never really a big strikeout pitcher, instead relying on ground balls and weak contact in general. Theoretically, that could be easier to work up to coming off major injuries than just overpowering opponents. As I said, I wouldn’t guarantee Burnett a spot on the roster over the likes of Brandon Workman, Tommy Layne or any of the other pitchers on the fringe, but I’d be more than happy to at least include him in the competition.
Clearly, the types of players listed above are far from a priority this offseason. The focus right now is rightfully on who will top Boston’s rotation, who will man the hot corner, and how the playing time gets separated in the outfield. Still, these types of bit players can really come in handy, and it will be interesting to see if the Red Sox kick the tires on any of them. My preference would be in the order I listed them above, but with players rehabbing from injury it’s tough to really know how they’ll perform. The bullpen is almost complete, but needs a little more help to really take shape. One of the names above could be an x-factor to take it from a nice unit to a great one.