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Finding Burke Badenhop's replacement

Burke Badenhop played an important "fixer" role last season. Who can take his place this year?

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The backbone of the Red Sox bullpen is back from last year, and two-thirds of it remains from the 2013 championship team. Koji Uehara will still be holding down the ninth inning. Edward Mujica and Junichi Tazawa are going to take care of the other late-inning situations. A few other big roles in the unit are filled as well. Alexi Ogando and Brandon Workman represent two more potential high-leverage arms, though neither are guaranteed successes. The left-handed duties are somewhat underwhelming, but a combination of Craig Breslow, Tommy Layne, Robbie Ross and possibly Dana Eveland could get the job done. One big piece is unclear, and it’ll become a problem if no one steps up and fills the role. I speak of the ground ball specialist, a job that Burke Badenhop admirably held down in 2014.

Before I look forward at who will fill the role, let’s take a quick look back at how effective Badenhop was a year ago. His strikeout-to-walk numbers won’t blow anyone away, mostly due to his five strikeouts per nine innings. However, what he thrived at was being the Mike Ehrmantraut of the bullpen. Other pitchers got into jams, and Badenhop came on as the fixer. Last year, just one pitcher induced more double plays than him. Considering that one pitcher was Brandon League, it’s not necessarily a great thing. A pitcher may be getting so many double plays because they’re putting a ton of runners on base. That wasn’t the case for Badenhop, though. There were runners on base in 32 of his 70 appearances, and 12 of his 14 double plays came in those situations. With a Red Sox rotation that has as many question marks as this group, someone who can quickly get out of jams will be a very valuable thing. Who can take over that role?

Anthony Varvaro

Acquired from the Braves for minor leaguer Aaron Kurcz this offseason, Varvaro seems like the most obvious candidate for this role. It seems all but guaranteed that he will begin the year on the active roster, and he has a strong Major League track record. Over the last two years he’s tossed 128 frames with an 18 percent K-rate and a seven percent BB-rate. He also induced seven double plays in each of those years. Though he hasn’t carried a ground ball rate quite to Badenhop’s standards*, he finished with a 50 percent rate last year, and has only been slightly below that for the rest of his career. Given his performance in 2014, it’s likely he’ll get the first crack at getting the starters out of jams this season.

*Badenhop had an outrageous 62% GB% last year, per Baseball Prospectus.

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Robbie Ross

Another new acquisition from this winter, Ross was the return in the deal that sent Anthony Ranaudo to Texas. Although he’s spent a good portion of his professional career as a starter, all signs point towards Boston shifting him to the bullpen full-time this season. The first instinct would be to use him as the lefty specialist, but he’s shown reverse platoon splits over his career. What he has excelled at, though, has been inducing ground balls. In his three major-league seasons, he’s posted ground ball rates of 63, 45 and 54 percent. He wants to be a starter this year, but his most valuable role may be as a ground ball specialist.

Zeke Spruill

Spruill is yet another offseason acquisition, and one that is the most likely to sneak up on people. He doesn’t have a ton of MLB experience, but he’s been solid, if unspectacular, in that time. For the coming season, it’s very unlikely that he’ll start the year in Boston’s bullpen. He has an option left, and given all of the options for the relief corps, that means he’s a safe bet to begin the year in Pawtucket’s bullpen. If and when a need arises for a ground ball reliever, Spruill will be among the top options. He doesn’t have the stuff to be a true back-end arm, but his minor-league ground ball rates suggest he has a future as a double play inducer. He’s someone to keep an eye on as the year goes on.

Dana Eveland

This one hinges on what opportunities present themselves for Eveland at the end of the spring. The 31-year-old signed a Minor League deal with an invitation to spring training this winter which included an opt-out date prior to Opening Day. Unless there is an injury or two, there likely won’t be a big-league job in Boston right away. If someone else can offer him one, more power to him. If he sticks around, though, he could be a very valuable depth piece this year, and one that can play a bigger role as the year goes on. He was outstanding in a half-year of work with the Mets in 2014, and that included a 55 percent ground ball rate. He’s had a long career, and has spent the majority of it with a ground ball-rate above 50 percent. Like Spruill, his opportunity for the role will come later in the year, but he certainly has the skill set to take over for Badenhop.

It’s not the most important role in the bullpen, but Burke Badenhop may have let us take it for granted last year. The starting rotation figures to get itself into some trouble this year, and having a relief pitcher outside of the Big Three (I’m calling Uehara, Tazawa and Mujica that for now, deal with it) who can get out of trouble with one pitch will be huge. Varvaro looks like the early favorite for that job, with Ross as another strong candidate. Don’t sleep on Spruill or possibly even Eveland, though.