FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Decision is becoming clearer. The Red Sox are in the final stages of deciding who will be taking their talents to Texas as members of the Opening Day pitching staff.
On Saturday, the Red Sox purchased the contract of left-hander Dennys Reyes. By and large, Reyes has been impressive this spring, allowing three earned runs in nine innings while striking out eight and walking four.
That Reyes is now a member of the 40-man roster is no guarantee that he will make the Opening Day roster. He was told that he is one of four pitchers still in competition for the spot. Nonetheless, it bodes well for his candidacy that the Sox purchased his contract rather than letting him opt out.
With five days remaining before Opening Day, here are a few noteworthy factors to consider as the Red Sox determine who from the group of Reyes, Hideki Okajima, Alfredo Aceves and Matt Albers makes the team.
THE SOX ARE SATISFIED WITH WHAT THEY HAVE
The fact of the matter is that the Red Sox are in an unusually comfortable position with regards to their bullpen depth. Relievers are inherently unpredictable, and bullpen guys who look great one month may be unable to retire a batter in the next.
That said, the Sox have already sent down a couple of left-handers – Rich Hill and Randy Williams – who showed enough in the spring to be worth a shot during the season when they need to summon an arm from the minors.
The team has a fascinating project in left-hander Andrew Miller. If he can ever harness his tremendous stuff on a consistent basis, he could be a potential impact contributor.
And the team also sent down one of its most important relievers of 2010 – Scott Atchison – simply because their offseason additions of Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler left them without immediate need of the right-hander.
“It will be more depth than we’ve had in a long time,” Sox manager Terry Francona said of the organization’s relief depth.
Indeed, the Sox are in a strong enough position that they are taking a relatively low-key approach to the market for middle relievers that typically materializes in the final days of spring training. With teams making roster decisions, players with opt-out dates and/or players who are out of options become available.
A year ago, the Sox signed left-hander Scott Schoeneweis on March 26 after he’d been released by the Brewers during spring training. This year, one team source said he would be surprised if the Sox made a move to add a pitcher in the coming days, while another noted that while the Sox always explore possible acquisitions, there is “nothing imminent” in terms of a move to add a pitcher.
That approach, in turn, is a reflection of the team’s good standing. The pitchers who in camp performed well. And by and large, they remained healthy.
Aside from the elbow stiffness that knocked Felix Doubront out of the competition for a bullpen role at the start of the year, the Sox have enjoyed fairly solid health from their pitchers this spring. The team is in a position where it can make decisions primarily based on how pitchers performed and on their potential value to the organization, rather than having the competition determined by nagging injuries that took pitchers (other than Doubront) out of consideration for jobs.
“It’s basically been guys competing,” said Francona, who praised the team’s medical and training staff for their work with pitchers during the winter. “Not, ‘We’ve got to back him up because his arm’s sore.’”
TO WHATEVER DEGREE POSSIBLE, THE TEAM WILL TRY TO MAINTAIN ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH IN ITS FINAL DECISIONS
The Sox always try to keep as much good pitching in the organization – not just on the major league roster, but somewhere in the system – as they can.
In some ways, that augurs well for Reyes and Albers, neither of whom can be sent to the minors without exposing them to waivers. Aceves has two options remaining, and so it would be easy to stash him in Triple-A Pawtucket while letting him remain stretched out as a starting depth option. Okajima has three options left.
That said, one can also envision a scenario in which the team tries to get Albers through waivers. If (and that is a big if) none of the 30 teams claimed the right-hander – who has been solid in his spring appearances, punching out 13 and walking none in 11 1/3 innings – then the Sox could assign Albers to the minors while keeping around a pitcher like Okajima or Aceves who can move freely back and forth between the majors and minors in the coming season without risking his loss.
Regardless of the personnel, the two-part goal for the Sox is the same. They want the best possible pitchers in the majors. At the same time, their decisions are also driven by a desire to maximize the number of useful arms they have in their organization for the longer haul of the year.
Teams almost invariably end up with a revolving door of pitchers at the back of their bullpen. In the unpredictable world of relief performances, the best way to achieve quality is often by amassing quantity. In some respects, the Sox are more concerned about how best to maximize the quantity of arms they have in the organization right now than they are about who pitches the best in the next couple of outings.
“We love watching guys pitch or maybe do well. But I don’t think that it’s a pitchoff,” Francona said. “I think it’s maybe more of us trying to determine where we best set up. Not only for now, but for down the road, and how to go about that.”
THAT SAID, THE TEAM COULD TRADE FROM A POSITION OF SOME STRENGTH
The Sox have received interest in some of their pitching depth, according to a team source. They could resolve their 4-for-2 bullpen equation by dealing one of their pitchers if another team offered enough in return.
One thing worth considering: As things stand, the Red Sox have a relatively fixed front five in the bullpen. As long as Jonathan Papelbon, Bobby Jenks, Daniel Bard, Dan Wheeler and Tim Wakefield are healthy, they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. (Of those, only Bard could be sent to the minors without exposing him to waivers.) That means that if the Sox want to add a pitcher from the minors, Reyes and Albers (both of whom cannot be optioned) will give them little flexibility to do so.
So, if the Sox think that they have comparable talents in the organization, one could make the case that it would behoove the Sox to deal Albers or Reyes whenever their value is greatest, whether now or later in the season.
Once the Sox put Reyes or Albers on the major league roster, they are relatively inflexible pieces due to their contract status. So, in some ways, the Sox could guarantee a return on one of those pitchers by trading him, and at the same time free a roster spot for a pitcher who has options remaining, thus allowing the team to shuttle him between Pawtucket and the majors.
MULTIPLE LEFT-HANDERS MIGHT BE AN UNNECESSARY LUXURY
In the past, Francona has made no secret of his preference to carry multiple left-handers in his bullpen. He has worried that when he has just one southpaw, he can get worn out by the need to warm up every time a pivotal at-bat against an opposing left-handed hitter is nearing.
But that issue is in some ways muted this year. In the past, Okajima was such an essential part of the bullpen – the one truly trusted middle reliever against left-handed hitters – that Francona would need him to warm up anywhere from the sixth through eighth innings.
But now, the Sox’ needs are different. Papelbon, Bard and Jenks are all right-handed. But the Sox will permit all to face left-handed hitters. After all, both Bard (in 2010) and Jenks (throughout his career) have shown an ability to be even more effective against lefties than righties, while Papelbon will get the ball in the ninth inning of save situations, no matter who is coming up.
Given that composition, the need for a left-hander to pitch in a critical situation should be diminished significantly. There might be times when the Sox want a shut-down left-hander in the sixth inning, but after that, the big three of Papelbon, Jenks and Bard will likely be handling the load.
As such, the likelihood of burning out a left-handed reliever is diminished for the Sox this year.
“I would say that it’s always nice to have two, just because it saves wear and tear on the one,” said Francona. “[But with] the guys we have at the back end, we’re not taking Bard out when a lefty comes up. And you can’t have a 14-man pitching staff. Sometimes you have to make those decisions.”
OPENING DAY IS JUST A STARTING POINT FOR A BULLPEN
The Sox start the year with seven relievers. That’s always just the tip of the iceberg.
In 2010, the team employed 19 relievers (not counting position players Jonathan Van Every and Bill Hall, while counting Alan Embree even though he never pitched in a game while on the big league roster).
In 2009, 17 pitchers came out of the bullpen for the Sox.
In 2008, it was a total of 15 relievers who made their way through the bullpen gates and onto the mound for the Sox.
The 2007 season also featured 15 relievers.
Conclusion? If history is a guide, there will be more pitchers added to the bullpen over the course of the season than the seven who start the 2011 campaign in it. So, the concerns the Sox face run far deeper than just deciding on which two of the four healthy pitchers in Sox camp will start the year in the Boston bullpen.