DETROIT – It would be terribly premature to cast judgment on the Red Sox bullpen.
Those who would look at the team’s relief performance on Thursday and suggest that the Sox are doomed to late-innings failure would do well to recall the Red Sox debut of Hideki Okajima. The left-hander, after an unimpressive spring training performance, allowed a home run to the first batter he faced in 2007, Royals catcher John Buck.
But, over the better part of the next seven weeks, he did not allow another run, turning in 19 scoreless appearances. In the process, he helped the Sox to have the best bullpen in the American League.
Obviously, a team can’t rely on that precedent, but Okajima’s debut suggests that caution is appropriate when assessing Opening Day performances. The first day of the season tends to magnify perceived flaws to the point of rendering them grotesque, yet the reality is that one game is insufficient to get a true rendering of a situation.
The Sox -- whose bullpen allowed two runs in two innings in a 3-2 loss to the Tigers on Opening Day -- were not alone in experiencing the absence of relief in their first game of the year. Four teams suffered blown saves in their first games of the year. Seven teams saw their bullpens suffer Opening Day losses in the seventh inning or later.
The Sox, of course, were among them, with Mark Melancon (who allowed two singles while recording one out, setting the stage for a hit batter and game-winning single yielded by Alfredo Aceves) enduring one of them. Still, the Sox believe that, for now, they have the components to have a solid bullpen even without either closer Andrew Bailey (sidelined until the second half following surgery on his thumb) or reliever-turned-starter Daniel Bard.
“I think Aceves is good in any role you put him in and just crazy enough to succeed. I think Melancon obviously can handle it. He’s done it before. You’ve got other guys who can pick up saves as needed. You’ve got [Vicente] Padilla, who’s done it before,” said Bard. “There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re going to pick up the slack.”
Pitching coach Bob McClure added another name to that mix.
“I really think we have three or four guys who can close,” he said. “Now that Andrew’s gone, I think [Franklin] Morales could do it, I think Padilla could do it, I think Melancon could do it, I think Aceves could do it.”
Melancon is coming off a year in which he had a 2.78 ERA and recorded 20 saves (in 25 opportunities) for the Astros after replacing the injured Brandon Lyon early in the year. Last year, he proved adept at eliciting both groundballs and swings-and-misses, especially against right-handers.
(It was interesting to note that, when asked why he brought Melancon into Thursday’s game for the start of the ninth rather than Aceves, who had also warmed, Sox manager Bobby Valentine offered, “The right-hander is coming up, I didn’t think there was any reason Mark couldn’t start that inning.” It thus remains to be seen whether Valentine tries to employ Melancon primarily against right-handers, who hit .228 with a .581 OPS against him last year, compared to a .243/.704 split against lefties.)
Padilla likewise has been very good in his career against righties (.242 average, .300 OBP, .671 OPS, striking out 18.3 percent of them) while getting hit by lefties (.291 average, .846 OPS, 14.1 percent strikeout rate).
The Sox are hopeful that they may be close to harnessing the considerable potential of Morales, once rated the No. 8 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America. The left-hander, who has held lefties to a .201 average, .299 OBP and .661 OPS in his career) has cut down significantly on his walks totals since getting to the Sox, suggesting the possibility of a meaningful late-innings role given his electric stuff.
So, there are some interesting late-innings pieces in the Red Sox bullpen. How they come together remains to be seen. Unquestionably, the group is a work in progress as the Sox try to establish order from chaos in the aftermath of Bailey’s unexpected injury on the doorstep to the season.
But what if the group struggles? If that happens, then there is a very intriguing possibility for how the Sox can hide some of their bullpen deficiencies.
Unquestionably, Aceves defies the typical mold for a closer. Most closers feature two or perhaps three pitches. Aceves brings a full starter’s repertoire (and then some) from the bullpen.
Yet that doesn’t mean that there aren’t closers like him.
“He’s a little bit like [Joakim] Soria to me, although he throws a little harder,” said Sox pitching coach McClure, referencing the two-time All-Star who handled ninth-inning duties for McClure in Kansas City. “They’re accurate, they’re resilient and they can start or relieve.”
The comparison of Aceves to Soria is intriguing, given the atypical fashion in which the Royals employed their closer at times under McClure. Soria had seven two-inning saves, the most in the majors since the start of the 2007 season in which he made his closing debut. Five of those two-inning saves came in 2009, tied for the most two-inning saves in a season since 2001.
McClure himself was no stranger to what he described as “old-school” saves during his own career. He had 14 career saves of two or more innings, including three in which he worked the final four innings.
“It saves your bullpen,” McClure said of multi-inning saves. “Not only that, but when you’re pitching and doing that, by the time you get to, say it’s 2 1/3 innings, by the time you’re getting there, you really have a feel for your pitches.
“[With Aceves], I think you’re talking about someone who is so versatile that if you need him to go 2 1/3, he can do it,” he added. “And then the next day, he can do the same thing because he’s so resilient.”
McClure said that it would be unlikely to lean on one pitcher for saves of such duration (while the Royals used Soria for seven two-inning saves, none of those were for more than six outs). Still, Aceves is a pitcher with the potential to roll back the clock and serve as his own setup man.
After all, since he broke into the big leagues, he has 49 appearances of at least two innings, the most by a reliever in the American League during that time. The fact that he leads the league in that category despite missing nearly all of the 2010 season underscores the fact that he is a form-defying reliever.
So, if Aceves performs well but the bridge to him becomes shaky, the Sox could consider using Aceves in much the same fashion as they did last year, but simply at a different stage in the game.
Sox manager Bobby Valentine has said that he’d be open to using the versatile Aceves for more than three outs in a save situation. During his six full seasons as manager of the Mets from 1997-2002, Valentine’s pitching staffs produced 41 saves of four or more outs, a middle-of-the-pack number that was tied for sixth in the National League during that time and 14th in all of baseball.
(During that same time, the Reds had easily the most saves of more than one inning, recording 101 such performances. The Yankees (89), with Mariano Rivera, were second, and the Red Sox – mostly under Jimy Williams at that time, with Derek Lowe serving as closer for part of that time – were third with 85.)
Maybe the Sox can rely on Aceves to single-handedly create an effective late-innings security blanket. Perhaps Melancon or Morales or Padilla steps up and Aceves does not have to do so. Perhaps none of those things happens and the Sox bullpen will be a weakness.
In short, for now, it is difficult to say exactly what the Red Sox bullpen is or is not, aside from the fact that it is without the pitcher who was supposed to be the option at the end of games.
The remaining pitchers in the bullpen could prove very effective or they could turn the late innings into the proverbial minefield. There are some interesting pieces -- none more interesting than Aceves -- that offer the possibility of either legitimate late-innings relief or end-of-game struggles.
Of course, in that sense, the Sox are in the same boat as roughly 29 other teams, given the inherent year-to-year uncertainties of relief staffs. Opening Day has come and gone, but it remains to be seen what the Red Sox have at the end of games.