With Andrew Miller almost certainly done for the year, how can the Red Sox replace one of the most overpowering left-handers in the game? The task isn't easy.
But what if the Sox could trade for a pitcher with a better ERA over the last six years than White Sox southpaw Matt Thornton or Reds left-hander Sean Marshall or Orioles closer Jim Johnson, someone who had held opponents to a sub-.300 OBP during that time, whose numbers were difficult to separate over an extended stretch from those of another White Sox reliever, Jesse Crain? What if the Sox could trade for one of the six relievers with six straight years (min. 30 innings) of sub-4.00 ERAs, with a mark of 3.00 or better in at least four of those years?
Answer: They did.
It was almost a year ago that the Red Sox traded for left-hander Craig Breslow, a pitcher who has quietly rated as not just one of the most consistent (an adjective that makes Breslow rankle) in the game, but also one of the most effective bullpen options in the game over that period.
Breslow delivered a huge performance on Tuesday night in Seattle, logging 2 1/3 shutout innings and 43 pitches (the second most of his career) to stabilize a game where Red Sox starter Allen Webster was shelled for seven runs in 2 1/3 innings and anticipated long reliever Alfredo Aceves was pulled after just two outs, in deference to the fact that the Mariners had some lefties coming up and Aceves was experiencing some tightness in his side.
Yet the singular performance -- for which Breslow earned the win in the Sox' eventual 11-8 victory -- merely underscored broader excellence that has typified Breslow's work for the better part of six years.
Since 2008, Breslow ranks 14th among all relievers who have worked at least 300 innings in ERA (3.01). Among lefties, he ranks fourth in ERA. Put another way:
Jeremy Affeldt (2008-13): 346 2/3 IP, 2.96 ERA, 8.0 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, .238/.323/.351
Craig Breslow (2008-13): 344 1/3 IP, 3.01 ERA, 7.5 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, .227/.299/.347
Statistically, the difference is incidental. Yet the two were rewarded in wildly different fashion for their fine work in 2012.
Affeldt signed a three-year, $21 million extension with the Giants after following his season with 10 1/3 scoreless innings in the postseason for the eventual World Series champion winners. He got the sort of contract that is more typically associated with closers.
Meanwhile, Breslow -- whom the Sox acquired at last year's deadline in a trade with the Diamondbacks for Matt Albers -- landed a two-year, $6.25 million deal (which included a Sox team option for a third year), covering both his final year or arbitration eligibility and at least his first year of free agent eligibility. The fact that Affeldt will earn more in one year than Breslow will in two is somewhat fascinating to the thoughtful left-hander.
"I understand he was a free agent -- but I don't think, conceptually, people say Craig Breslow and Jeremy Affeldt are on par. They say Affeldt is a premier left-handed reliever," said Breslow. "I say run the numbers. Numbers don't always tell the whole story, but they tell a pretty good one.
"If Jeremy Affledt had the year he had last year, it was another great year for Jeremy Affeldt. I had the year I had last year, and it was, 'Oh, he's pretty consistent,' " he continued. "How is it that one guy's super season is another guy's, 'Oh,' when they're exactly the same? Granted, he won the World Series, had a great postseason, all those things factor in. But again, if you crossed out the names, most valuations would be starkly different."
Breslow does not make that assessment with any kind of rancor about his financial position -- particularly given his appreciation for the fact that the Sox became the first team in his career to show interest in a multi-year deal. It is a mere curiosity.
Why are he and Affeldt perceived as different kinds of pitchers when their performance tracks so similarly? Is it because Breslow is 5-foot-10 and looks like, well, an Ivy League intellectual while Affledt is 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds and looks like he could emerge victorious from a wrestling match with a moose? Is it because Affeldt throws harder? (In 2012, Affeldt's average four-seam fastball (per the amazing brooksbaseball.net) was 94.6 mph, and Breslow's was 91.6 mph.)
All that aside, Breslow is grateful rather than resentful for his contract, particularly given that it will offer him professional stability as well as an opportunity for the Trumbull, Conn., native and Yale alum to pitch close to home. For the first time, the left-hander found a team that wanted to recognize the fact that he's been one of the most consistently effective left-handed relievers in the game over a stretch of half a decade.
"Based on the volatility of my career in terms of where I've been, it was certainly nice to be appreciated. The opportunity to be in the same place for two seasons was not something I could pass up, independent of dollars and Boston being close to home and all of those things, it was, 'Here is the first organization that appreciates me enough to make a multi-year commitment to me,' " said Breslow. "I've been kind of making the case for years that you're probably not going to find a guy who's been so consistent in performance, attitude, health, that if you were willing to make a multi-year commitment in somebody, it should probably be me. Granted, I'm my biggest fan."
That may be the case, but if Breslow is the president of his fan club, he now has a burgeoning membership base, particularly with members of the Red Sox organization. And while he expresses some exasperation when he is described as "consistent" -- "A lot of the comments I'd think you'd hear about me are 'consistent,' 'stable,' 'reliable,' " said Breslow, "but it's not consistently average. It's consistently capable of getting some big outs." -- the fact that he has been an excellent performer, capable of shutting down both lefties and righties, on an annual basis is part of what drew the Sox to him and convinced the club to give him a multi-year deal.
In a role that tends to feature tremendous volatility from one year to the next, Breslow has done everything in his power to resist the typical roller coaster that characterizes the performance of most relievers.
"At 32, physically, I'm not changing anymore. I probably haven't for the last seven or eight years. Physically, if I'm the same, then if I prepare the same every season, then my performance should be pretty consistent. I think that's the one thing that makes me consistent," said Breslow. "I take each offseason the same way. I prepare every day the same way so that I can have the realistic expectation that my performance will be the same.
"I will not miss a workout in the offseason," he said. "It doesn't matter what else comes up, what else needs to be done. My day starts after I get my workouts in. In terms of mentality and preparing, I go through the same exercises so I can give myself the same chance of being the same as I was yesterday."
That approach has made him as reliable a performer as the Sox have had this year, at least since his return from the inflammation in his left shoulder that slowed the start of his year in spring training. Given that Breslow had never before experienced a shoulder or arm issue, he bordered on alarmed with what was ultimately a minor issue, but the condition is now a distant memory, and his stuff and performance has lived up to his impressive track record.
That, in turn, has made Breslow one of the most trusted members of manager John Farrell's bullpen, a pitcher who in some ways commanded as much trust -- if not more -- as Miller given the reliability of Breslow's strike-throwing approach. It was telling that, on a recent day when Koji Uehara was unavailable, Farrell acknowledged that he would have used Breslow as his closer.
The 32-year-old's emergence in such a capacity underscores how far his career has come. In 2008, after all, the Sox designated him for assignment in spring training after having kept him in Triple-A for all of 2007. Then, he was a fringe member of the 40-man roster, someone who was designated by the Sox and then the Indians before finally getting claimed and finding a home with the Twins, for whom he forged a 1.63 ERA in 42 games, launching what has been a strong run that is now in its sixth year.
He has gone from the margins of the roster to an essential component of it. Breslow thinks it is more than just circumstance that has changed.
"I think I am different. A lot of people around me would say I'm the same guy and the people around me have changed. I think I'm different both physically but also mentally," he said. "Mechanically, I'm more consistent now. I'm able to command the ball better. My velocity is a little bit better. But also mentally, I think I'm just better equipped to handle pitching in Fenway Park and pitching for the Boston Red Sox than in 2007.
"It's a tough place for a 26th-round, oft-released guy to establish a career. I'm fortunate for having been able to been able to go to the West Coast, where you're forgotten for a few years, get 250 games under my belt and then come back here feeling like, even if my repertoire physically was no different, I can succeed here. That being said, I can throw a changeup behind in the count. I couldn't do that in 2007. I can throw a cutter behind in the count. I couldn't do that in 2007. In a 2-0 count, I can throw a little sinker and get a ground ball. I am a little bit of a different pitcher."
With Miller now gone, Breslow is the lone left-hander on the Red Sox staff. Yet he is no longer fighting the perception that he is simply a left-on-left guy. The Sox will steer him towards stretches of the lineup that feature left-handers, but as was the case in his impressive effort on Tuesday, they won't shy from leaving him in to face anyone.
His stuff will not dazzle in the same fashion as Miller's. But the bottom line is likely to be just as impressive. The Red Sox recognize that fact, helping to explain why Breslow seemingly has found his baseball home.