Keith Foulke knows the deal.
The former Red Sox closer, the man responsible for the most celebrated out in franchise history in 2004, lived the life of Andrew Bailey long before the current Red Sox closer was introduced to it. After the 2003 season, Foulke left the A's to sign as a free agent with the Red Sox, accompanied by questions about whether his modest velocity and flyball tendencies would allow him to succeed in the American League East and Boston.
For a year, at least, Foulke did everything imaginable to eradicate any doubts about whether a pitcher could make the eastward journey and thrive. He excelled during the regular season and then emerged as a force in the postseason, seemingly securing the permanent good will of New England.
But it didn't quite work out that way. The next year, Foulke had two bad knees and couldn't pitch through his physical limitations. His struggles became the subject of considerable fan ire, and for most of his final two years with the Red Sox, his relationship with Fenway Park partisans proved a testy one. He experienced the full spectrum of what makes Boston a place like few others in which to close.
"Coming from Oakland to Boston is a huge change as far as the city, pretty much in every aspect," Foulke recalled on a visit back to Fenway Park this week. "You can go to the ballpark in Oakland, do your job, go back to where you live and nobody knows it. Nobody notices it. You're able to live your life, do whatever you want to do. You don't live in the city. Then you come out here, you're cast into -- in my opinion, probably the best sports city in the country, where after a while, everybody knows you. They watch the games. They know what's going on. It's not just home games and away games -- everyone knows what's going on. And every part of your life is scrutinized. You go out to eat and people see you. That's a huge change. It's something you've got to get used to and deal with in your own way.
"[But] it's a tough place to struggle," he added. "It's a great place to succeed, but a tough place to struggle, just because there's so much scrutiny on the team. There's writers all over the place. But it just depends, I stayed out of the papers. I did my interviews, answered the questions and that was it. I didn't read what people wrote. I don't care what people wrote. I'm hear to do my job. And if people bag on me, there's probably a good reason. If I'm not doing my job, I paid to, you're paid for the good and bad. You probably have to deal with the bad probably better than you deal with the good."
Right now, Andrew Bailey finds himself in the epicenter of that challenge. On Thursday night, the right-hander -- like Foulke, a pitcher who crossed coasts followed by questions about how he would adapt to a smaller ballpark, a division of relentless offenses and one of baseball's foremost fishbowls -- saw his season hit bottom. After he was entrusted with a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning against the Tigers, he promptly gave up a five-pitch walk to Victor Martinez (all fastballs) and a game-winning, two-run, walkoff homer to Jhonny Peralta (cutter over the plate).
The nine-pitch blown save (and loss) highlighted the phenomenon of Bailey's mysteriously disappearing fastball. In April, it was a dominant weapon, averaging 94.7 mph with 29.9 percent of swings resulting in misses. Since he went on the disabled list with biceps tendinitis at the end of that month, however, he’s averaged 93.2 mph with his fastball while getting swings and misses at just a 12.3 percent rate.
Farrell has suggested that Bailey's fastball has lacked a consistent second gear, an assessment with which the closer has agreed.
"There's peaks and valleys for your outings throughout the year, and there's also peaks and valleys for velocity, life on the fastball. I'm kind of experiencing both right now," Bailey said on Wednesday. "I feel good. There's no health concerns or anything. It's just about me making better pitches because I don't have that second gear right now. [Farrell] knows it. Our pitching coach knows it. I've just got to work through it, make better pitches."
For Bailey, the third blown save and fourth homer he'd given up in five games represented the signal that he's going to have to work out his difficulties in a different role. Manager John Farrell acknowledged after the game that it's now time to reshuffle the bullpen deck.
"I think so," Farrell told reporters when asked if it was time to explore a closing alternative to Bailey. "Whether that’s backing him out of that to get him some work to get on track a little bit more, what the internal options are and out of fairness to Andrew and others down there late in the game, we’ll talk more about that internally to make a potential change."
The key word there is "internally." While the Sox have struggled with their ninth-inning performances this year -- first from Joel Hanrahan, whose arm was falling off, and more recently from Bailey -- the team has enjoyed a wealth of standout performances from its middle relievers.
And so, as the Sox move Bailey out of the ninth inning, they seem likely to go with one of the options that they have in their current crew to replace him. Beyond the strong performances of the team's middle relievers, it's also hard to ignore the fact that the Sox haven't exactly covered themselves in glory in recent years when trading for late-inning relievers.
The trade at last year's deadline of one reliever (Matt Albers) for another (left-hander Craig Breslow) notwithstanding, the Sox have plenty of evidence of the perils of trading for relievers and the challenge of predicting their responses to a new environment. The 2007 deal for Eric Gagne at the trade deadline and the more recent trades for Mark Melancon (terrific in Houston, terrible in Boston, now excelling again in Pittsburgh), Bailey and now Hanrahan all underscore the notion that dealing prospects and other long-term assets for closers represents a stroll across a mine field.
And so, it came as little surprise to hear GM Ben Cherington earlier this week suggest that the Sox believed they had viable alternatives to Bailey inside the organization.
"We think we have some internal options if needed, perhaps a little better situated there than we have been the last year or two," Cherington said of his interest in dealing for a closer. "It's something that, if the season goes on, it's just something to stay on top of, stay aware of, and if there are ways to get better, we'll consider those."
So, who are those internal options, both for the immediate term and perhaps the longer term this year?
FIRST CRACK: THE SHORT-TERM OPTIONS
ANDREW MILLER (LHP)
26 IP, 2.77 ERA, 14.9 K/9, 4.8 BB/9
vs. RHH: .149/.298/.213
vs. LHH: .280/.345/.400
Pros: He seems like he can strike out everyone. His strikeout rate of 14.9 per nine innings entering Thursday led all American League pitchers (min. 20 innings). In his last 16 innings spanning 16 games, he has a 1.13 ERA with 25 strikeouts and six walks. His stuff -- a high-90s fastball and wipeout slider -- is incredible.
"He hasn't been in the [closer] role yet. But he's certainly got the kind of stuff," Cherington said on Wednesday. "The confidence is growing. You see him out there executing, getting right-handers out as much as he's getting left-handers out, all those things, he's certainly got the attributes to pitch at any point in the game."
Cons: From outing to outing, it's difficult to trust his command. Certainly, in his recent run of excellence, there have been signs of improved command, but not only are his 4.8 walks per nine for the year an unnerving rate, but even during his dominance of the last (roughly) three weeks, he still has walked multiple batters in three of his nine outings. No prior closer experience. Though he's exhibiting similar strikeout rates with both righties and lefties, fellow southpaws have still hit the ball with surprising thump against him.
32 1/3 IP, 2.51 ERA, 10.6 K/9, 0.8 BB/9
vs. RHH: .314/.345/.451
vs. LHH: .233/.240/.438
Pros: Incredible strike-thrower who ranks third in the majors in strikeout-to-walk rate (12.67 strikeouts per walk). He's gone 19 straight appearances without walking a batter. He can strike out batters in volume.
Cons: When opponents make contact, the ball goes far. He's given up four homers in 32 1/3 innings. Righties are getting on base against him with disquieting frequency, though a .441 BABIP for right-handed hitters against him suggests that there's some luck in play. He didn't exactly look like a hand-in-glove fit for the closing role during the brief time in mid-May -- when Bailey was on the DL -- that he served as interim closer, giving up two runs in five innings while opponents hit .381/.391/.524 against him.
29 IP, 2.17 ERA, 12.7 K/9, 2.2 BB/9
vs. RHH: .229/.260/.500
vs. LHH: .140/.222/.246
Pros: Like Tazawa, he's a strike thrower who has given up multiple walks in precisely one career relief outing (earlier this year). More than any other option, he keeps both righties and lefties off base. He has the most meaningful experience of any other bullpen option in the closer's role, having gone 13-for-15 in save opportunities with the Orioles in 2010.
Cons: Though he is on pace for a career-high 67 appearances, there are durability concerns with Uehara. Those played into the decision to anoint Tazawa the closer when Bailey went on the DL, given Farrell's clear preference to tinker with his bullpen roles as infrequently as possible. And, like Tazawa, while he gives up hits infrequently, when he does, they have a tendency to travel vast distances, as evidenced by his four homer yield and career concession of 1.2 homers per nine.
AS THE YEAR PROGRESSES: POTENTIAL WILD CARD OPTIONS FOR LATER IN THE YEAR
If, in a month or two, the Red Sox remain amidst a late-innings scramble, then there are scenarios in which some of the team's upper levels prospects could emerge as important bullpen options. Obviously, no one is getting to be thrust straight from Pawtucket into the closer's role, but during Farrell's tenure as pitching coach, the Sox didn't shy from entrusting considerable late-innings responsibilities to homegrown pitchers shortly after they were called up (Jonathan Papelbon, Justin Masterson, Daniel Bard, Felix Doubront).
So, it's worth at least mentioning the following:
POTENTIAL LATE-YEAR CANDIDATES
RUBBY DE LA ROSA
43 2/3 IP, 2.89 ERA, 8.9 K/9, 5.2 BB/9
vs. RHH: .189/.277/.351
vs. LHH: .171/.326/.303
Pros: One talent evaluator recently wondered aloud if De La Rosa -- currently starting in Pawtucket -- could emerge as a late-season bullpen force for the Sox in a fashion comparable to that of Francisco Rodriguez with the Angels in 2002. His stuff -- a repeatable mid- to high-90s fastball, a tremendous swing-and-miss changeup and, at times, a swing-and-miss slider -- is geared for overpowering opponents, particularly if he was limited to shorter stints.
Cons: Inexperience in the role and the majors, of course, would make De La Rosa a wild card. His ability to work on a reliever's schedule, rather than a starter's better-defined routine, is an open question. His walk rate in Pawtucket seems like something of a red flag -- though it is worth noting that he's shown improved fastball command as the season has progressed.
84 2/3 IP, 3.08 ERA, 9.8 K/9, 2.7 BB/9
vs. RHH: .232/.278/.393
vs. LHH: .226/.310/.380
Pros: In three starts since his promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket, he has a 1.83 ERA, showing an ability to adapt well to midyear changes of scenery. While there is growing consensus inside and outside the Sox organization that Workman could be a solid, innings-eating back-end starter, in the short-term, he could be a bullpen difference-maker. He features a blunt, attacking approach with tremendous competitiveness and the fearlessness that seems like a natural fit for the late innings. He throws strikes with an array of pitches (low- to mid-90s fastball, curveball, cutter and a change that would become a less important option in short stints), and while his fastball doesn't have the explosiveness of Jonathan Papelbon, his bulldog mentality does offer some echoes of the former Sox closer.
Cons: He doesn't have professional experience as a reliever, though he did work out of the bullpen at times both for the University of Texas and while pitching in the Cape League. He will give up hard contact and extra-base hits, though doesn't get shaken from his approach when doing so.