It’s easy to see the Red Sox bullpen following many trajectories. They have assembled a staff which could prove to be one of the league’s elite, with his strikeout guys littering the 6th-9th innings. However, red flags exist if they are not appropriately snuffed out as the season opens, it’s also easy to see some of these guys suffering continued regression from their career peaks and Boston’s pen instead being most useful if you had a time machine and could bring them to 2011.
The Sox alleviated a 40-man roster crunch this offseason by dumping tons of superflous depth into the Pirates’ organization in exchange for Hanrahan and the one year remaining on his contract. While many foresaw a Fort Myers battle between him and Bailey for top dog in the bullpen, manager John Farrell put the kibosh on that quickly, naming Hanrahan his closer days after the trade. It was tough to find many better relievers than “The Hammer” in 2010 and 2011 when he put up a cumulative 2.81 xFIP as Pittsburgh’s top setup man and then closer. However, warning signs cropped up last year. His HR/9 jumped to 1.21 thanks to increases in both his FB% (up 7% above his career average of 38%) and HR/FB% (up ~4%). More concerning might be the BB% spike as he put up a 14.2% figure, erasing major gains from 2010 and 2011. His fastball velocity was down from 2011 but about the same as 2010 and he didn’t see any fundamental changes in opposing hitter plate discipline, so if he can slash the walks, there’s reason to believe he can still be elite — even in the American League East. That said, Hanrahan has been shaky (at best) this spring. With no long term money tied up, owners should be ready to do their best Jim Cramer “SELL, SELL, SELL” if he comes out of the gate still walking a guy or two every couple innings.
Bailey travelled cross-country in the trade better known for sending Josh Reddick to Oakland last offseason. Labelled “injury-prone” because of a variety of arm ailments over his Athletics tenure, he didn’t do much to help his image when he tore a tendon in his thumb in March and missed the majority of 2012. When he finally arrived, Boston fans salivating at the prospect of having a great, young closer were treated to a guy who (albeit in 15 1/3 innings) put up a significantly reduced K% (19%, off from 25% career average) combined with the highest walk of his big league career. Bailey’s fastball velocity was fine but the horizontal run on it shifted 3-5 inches towards right-handed batters, giving righties a better look at the ball out of his hand. This helped lead to a -2 wFB/C (2 runs below average on his fastball per 100 pitches), nearly 4 runs below his career norms. Boston hopes these were merely rust issues Bailey suffered from in a late-season small sample size, as he’s currently next-in-line for the ninth inning.
Uehara was plucked up on a $4.25 million deal in what may be the under-the-radar reliever acquisition of the offseason. Many look at his K/9 since moving to the bullpen in 2010 and say “11.4, that’s good, but hardly special.” Look harder, though, and you realize that figure is tremendously skewed because Uehara doesn’t walk anyone. Seriously. Like no one. At 3.1%, his BB% is the lowest of all qualified relievers since 2010 by nearly a full percentage point. His 33.5% K% (a better measure of his strikeout ability since it’s normalized to batters, not innings) is fifth in baseball over that time, only trailing Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman, (yes, please, to all three) and Carlos Marmol (who quintuples Uehara’s walk rate). Headed into his age-38 season, there have to be age-related concerns. Although, if Uehara’s arm is wearing down, it’s tough to find indicators in his fastball velocity (which has climbed every year since he was 35) or his SwStr% (ditto). He’s a dark horse for saves in Boston by the end of the year, but perhaps more importantly, a guy coming cheap at the end of deeper drafts who can help your rates right now.
Another guy who returned from injury (Tommy John surgery) in 2012, Tazawa quickly opened eyes with some impressive stats down the stretch. In 44 innings last season, he put up an even more minuscule walk rate (2.9% BB%) than Uehara (both clearly being men after my free-pass-hating heart) while also showcasing plenty of swing and miss stuff (26.2% K%). A Fangraphs+ (if you haven’t bought it already, what are you waiting for?) tidbit from Paul Swyden: “Tazawa’s 41 FIP- was the third-best mark in the majors among relievers who posted 40 or more innings last season. The two who did better? Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman.” More Chapman and Kimbrel stats? Yes, please. Tazawa is a little less projectable than his fellow countryman above since he has just 72.1 career innings under his belt but, of all the guys in the bullpen, has the most upside to end up much higher in the pecking order come September. If you like chasing reliever skills in a keeper/dynasty league, he’s a must-stash.
Miller returns as likely the sole lefty in the bullpen to open 2013. Finally converted to a full-time reliever, the former first-round pick had a renaissance of sorts, putting up a 3.37 xFIP thanks to a huge spike in K% (30% versus 18% career average). He still is in the double-digits in BB% (although it came down slightly in 2012) but if he can keep the walks from piling up, he’ll be solid as Boston’s top southpaw. Aceves has been much maligned in a few Bullpen Report pieces in the past, so I’ll take it easy on him here. After performing admirably in 2011 as a swingman (if only thanks to a .231 BABIP), recently-deposed Bobby Valentine gave Aceves a shot at the closer gig in 2012. While he saw impressive gains in velocity and SwStr% in his new one-inning role, his BABIP regressed to his xBABIP and he saw his ERA balloon to 5.36. A non-tender candidate this offseason, the Sox will hope he can provide fungible value as a rubber longman out of the pen, but there’s really no fantasy upside here.
Bard’s failed conversion to starter still leaves a sour taste in Sox fans’ mouths. After establishing himself as one of the premier young relievers in the game in 2009-2011, moving to the rotation caused Bard to become unhinged, culminating in an ugly outing in Toronto in early June where he faced 13 batters, walked six of them, hit two of them, with a couple wild pitches mixed in for good measure. He returned to the minors to transition back to a relief role, but even up on his return to Boston, his fastball velocity (once in the upper 90’s) wouldn’t touch 95 at the high end and walks were still being doled out like candy. Concern runs rampant for Bard, who suffered a similar multi-year bout of wildness coming out of UNC. He has looked better in spring training this year (although his outing Tuesday was nothing to write home about) but still will likely only crack the Opening Day roster thanks to injuries to a couple guys below.
Both Morales and Breslow are battling minor injuries this spring and likely won’t be ready to break camp with the team. The Sox had planned to stretch out Morales as a sixth starter option but that notion has been shelved. When he returns from his back injury, expect him to function as a low-leverage arm with an ability to shut down lefties. Breslow performs roughly the same function when on the mound but is battling a more serious shoulder injury and is likely Pawtucket bound when he finally is back to seeing game action.
Mortensen was a pleasant surprise for the Sox last year. After being acquired from Colorado, he put up a 3.21 ERA (4.04 xFIP) while chewing through some undesirable innings last year. Soon-to-be 28, he doesn’t have much upside left, but could steal a longman position from a guy like Aceves if Alfredo has more nights like this. He’ll head to the minors to open the season and shouldn’t be near a fantasy roster.
Wilson is one name to keep an eye on in Boston’s minor league system. The 26-year old lowered his FIP to 2.95 in his second year in Triple-A and has 20%+ K% potential. He could be a useful medium-leverage arm if he can keep the walks down and might be leapfrog a couple guys on this list for top callup candidate should something happen to one of Boston’s big dogs.