With the new year now upon us, the offseason has officially hit the “wait it out” period. While top tier free agents like Max Scherzer and James Shields have yet to find a new home, teams around the league have a general understanding of what their hoard of starters will look like come April. This notion rings particularly true for the Boston Red Sox, who got most of their offseason shopping done from mid November to mid December. During that time the team added eight new players, including a trio of new starters. Additionally, the lineup got a boost with the free agent additions of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. And David Ross’s time in Boston expired after the club added Ryan Hanigan to tandem with rookie Christian Vazquez.
With the starting rotation, starting lineup, and bench spots all pretty much set in stone, the only area left for GM Ben Cherington to add to is the bullpen. While there are certainly names that are a virtual lock to make the roster, some question marks still remain.
The best way to sift through the bullpen is to start with what we know and whittle down the list. Therefore, it’s probably safe to start at the closers role, where Koji Uehara appears set to enter his third season as Boston’s closer. Uehara, whose final numbers in 2014, while still respectable, were skewed by a late season rough patch, was given a mulligan in Boston in the form of a new 2 year, $19 million deal. By inking the soon-to-be 40 year old to a multi-year pact, the Red Sox showed their faith in Uehara. And for good reason. A little over a year ago, the Japanese right-hander enjoyed a historic season as the anchor of the teams pen. Uehara finished the 2013 season with 21 saves, a 1.09 ERA, and a 11.22 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His success finishing games for Boston came to a head during the 2013 playoffs, when Uehara pitched to the tune of a 0.66 ERA and took home the American League Championship Series’ MVP award. For all these reasons, Uehara seems poised to assume the 9th inning duties once again in Beantown.
Following Uehara is his fellow countryman Junichi Tazawa, who has been a reliable late innings/set up man in Boston for the past three seasons. Signed as an international free agent back in 2008, Tazawa tried his hand as a starter before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010 and being relegated to the bullpen upon his return to baseball. Since becoming a full time reliever in 2012, Tazawa has flourished as a member of Boston’s relief core, posting a 2.62 ERA and averaging just under 60 innings a season. Last year it was more of the same from the 30-year old, as he rounded out his campaign with a 2.94 fielding independent pitching over 63 innings of work. With Tazawa, Boston can anticipate consistency from the right-hander in 2015, and for the projected arbitration price of $2 million, Tazawa’s role is a lock.
Entering his second year in Boston, right-hander Edward Mujica figures to handle a similar role to Tazawa in next seasons bullpen. Prior to joining the Red Sox last winter, Mujica enjoyed arguably the best year of his career as the closer and late innings reliever with the St. Louis Cardinals, posting a 2.78 ERA in 62.2 innings. Subsequently, the Venezuela native cashed in on the free agent market, inking a 2 year, $9.5 million deal with the Sox last winter. However, Mujica’s Red Sox career didn’t exactly get off on the right foot. During the first half of the season, Mujica posted a 5.45 ERA in 35 appearances. Following the All Star break, however, Mujica re-found himself in the late innings role, and collected an encouraging 1.78 ERA in 29 appearances. As has been the case with other players, it took Mujica a little while to figure out how to perform to the best of his ability in Boston, but he was able to find his form despite what his overall 2014 numbers suggest.
Although not as much of a lock as the three afore mentioned arms, newly acquired right-handed Anthony Varvaro figures to fit in as a middle reliever in Boston’s 2015 relief core. The Staten Island native was obtained by the Red Sox from the Atlanta Braves earlier this month in exchange for minor leaguer Aaron Kurcz. With Varvaro, most would agree that Braves new general manager John Hart sold low on the right hander, as Varvaro’s number over the past two seasons have been great.
Between 2013 and 2014, Varvaro posted a 2.74 ERA in 128 innings pitched and enjoyed career bests in strike out percentage and walk percentage. Moreover, the 30-year old fits Boston’s ground ball model that they have gone all-in on this winter. Over the past three seasons, Varvaro has watched his ground ball percentage rise from 41.9% to 47.2% to 49.7%. Recently, WEEI’s Rob Bradford called Varvaro a “cheaper replacement” to former Red Sox reliever Burke Badenhop, who was notorious for his ability to induce ground balls. While Varvaro doesn’t thrive on the ground ball as much as Badenhop, his numbers are starting to trend in a similar direction.
The recent signing of Craig Breslow bucked the trend of right-handers this offseason. The lone lefty in the Sox pen endured a terrible 2014 season after being an all around reliable cog in Boston’s run to a championship two seasons ago. But in a “what have you done for me lately” city like Boston, the Yale grads’ 5.96 ERA is fresh in fans minds. Let’s not forget, however, that Breslow accumulated a sub-2.00 ERA in 59 2/3 innings in 2013, and was able to retire right-handers consistently as well. Putting 2014 out of the picture, from 2009-2013 Breslow held an ERA of 2.95 and an equally respectable FIP of 3.78 over that five-year span. Therefore being the only proven major league left hander currently on the staff puts Breslow as a shoe in for the pen.
A typical major league bullpen contains seven relievers, so simple math tells us that the Sox have two more spots up for grabs. Filling these two spots can be done two ways; internally and/or externally.
The team currently employs a handful of interesting options to fill the bullpen voids, with Tommy Layne, Matt Barnes, and Brandon Workman serving as attractive options. Of the lot, the 25-year old Workman has the most major league exposure, tossing a combined 128 2/3 innings between starting and relieving. In 2013, Workman experienced baseballs biggest stage, throwing a combined 8.2 innings of clean baseball between the ALDS and World Series. While Workman has had a mixed bag of regular season success so far in his brief major league career, the right-hander might find his calling as the teams long reliever.
Fellow right hander and former Red Sox first round pick Matt Barnes enjoyed a moderately successful major league debut last season. The 24-year old collected 8 strikeouts and surrendered 11 hits over his first 9 innings of major league ball. Some have already pegged Barnes as a future late innings reliever or closer, as his fastball, curveball, change-up mix seems to fit the closer mold.
Layne, the lone left-handed arm out of the aforementioned trio of in house options, impressed in a short 19 inning stint in Boston. The 29-year old pitched to the tune of a 0.95 ERA and held left handed hitters to a .159/.229/.182 slash. With 2 spots available, it’s safe to assume that one of the remaining spots will come from inside the organization.
Other names for the Sox to consider internally include the newly acquired Zeke Spruill, minor leaguer Edwin Escobar, and knuckle baller Stephen Wright.
If the Sox decide to add to their pen from the outside as well, the team could get creative in the free agent market and take a flier on an arm. Therefore, veteran left-handers Neal Cotts and Joe Beimel could fit the bill for Boston. In turn, both Cotts and Beimel would join Layne as competition for the second lefty spot for the Red Sox.
Cotts, 34, endured a mediocre 2014 season as a member of the Texas Rangers, posting a 4.32 ERA and a 3.58 FIP in over 60 innings of work. However, the Illinois native is just a year removed from his best season in the majors, tossing over 50 innings and posting a 1.11 ERA. When he’s right, Cotts has the ability to retire both lefties and righties, a trait Cotts would share with current Red Sox’ southpaw Craig Breslow.
Joe Beimel, who hadn’t pitched since 2011 due to Tommy John surgery, enjoyed a productive first season back as a member of the Seattle Mariners in 2014. After starting the season in Triple-A, the 38-year old lefty returned to the majors and posted an ERA of 2.20 in 48 innings of work. Beimel, who was never known as a hard thrower, also managed to maintain his mid-to-high 80’s velocity on all of his pitches post-Tommy John.
While the 2014 season didn’t give Red Sox fans much to cheer about, the team did field a solid group of relievers overall. Last season Boston relievers managed to amass a respectable 3.30 ERA and a 3.46 fielding independent pitching, ranking sixth and fourth in the AL respectively. In turn Boston will rely on their relief core to produce on a similar plane in the new year. Additionally, Boston’s rotation full of innings eaters should alleviate the stress on the pen and keep arms fresh. While the Sox still have to figure out which two pitchers will round out the relief core, the team has a solid foundation from which to work with for 2015.