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Red Sox Bullpen: No Such Thing as a Free… Pass

The Red Sox still control the majority of the key bullpen cogs from their World Championship run, so the team that posted the fifth best SIERA in the American League should be in the neighborhood of repeating that mark in 2014. With the return of a couple injured arms (note: mercifully not Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey) and the addition of a few pitchers fitting the mold of Boston’s already low-walk relief corps, there is also upside for the defending champs to own one of the better (and more fantasy relevant) bullpens in baseball.

The closer
Koji Uehara

There’s not a lot more to say about Uehara’s 2013. I wrote extensively about it when naming him last season’s American League Fantasy Most Valuable Relief Pitcher (ALFMVRP; I’m not good with acronyms) and covered him this offseason in your friendly copy of Fangraphs+. He strikes out a ton of guys, walks virtually no one, and showed no issues with being used in the highest of high leverage situations during Boston’s World Championship run. The fact he will turn 39 the first week of the season is really the only knock on him (and the one thing keeping him a tier below Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, and Kenley Jansen┬áin fantasy drafts) but he’ll have one of the longest leashes among closers in baseball.

The setup guys
Junichi Tazawa
Edward Mujica

In essence, Tazawa is really just a harder throwing version of Uehara. OK, Tazawa’s three-year K% is roughly 10% less than his Japanese contemporary, but both pitchers use splitters as their primary offspeed pitches, have put up similar minuscule (near 3%) walk rates, and own general fly-ball tendencies. The fact Tazawa’s K% is “only” 25% is actually somewhat interesting given his SwStr% is almost 13% and he pounds the zone (52.1% Zone%, compared to 44.7% league average). He actually was given a brief crack at the closer gig when Hanrahan and Bailey went down last season, but a brief bout of gopheritis let Uehara swipe the keys and drive away. While he looked to be a nice handcuff for Uehara owners as the team hoisted their World Series trophy, that may no longer be the case since the Red Sox went and signed…

… Edward Mujica. As those who follow me on Twitter know, I have a huge mancrash on low-walk relief pitchers. Obviously, the Red Sox follow, too. Continuing a trend among Boston’s late inning corps, the team signed Mujica to a two-year deal this offseason. Mujica, the owner of a career 3.8% BB%, served as the Cardinals closer for (very) roughly 96.214 percent of 2013, before becoming fatigued down the stretch and turning the role over to Trevor Rosenthal. Now in Beantown, he’ll move back to a setup role. In the peripherals department, he’s not quite as good as either of the guys in front of him. He strikes out only 18% of batters (least among the Uehara-Tazawa-Mujica triumvirate) and has a sub-50% GB%, so a large number of batters not only put the ball in play, but in the air. Because of his closing experience, however, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him leapfrog Tazawa if something were to happen to Uehara, so trying to monopolize the Boston closing situation may be a sticky draft-day strategy.

Middle relief
Andrew Miller
Craig Breslow
Brandon Workman
Burke Badenhop
Alex Wilson
Chris Capuano

I debated whether I should slot Miller in as one of Boston’s top setup men, but decided he should open the season here. The only real ding on him headed into 2014 is the fact he is coming off of a fairly severe injury to the ligaments in his foot. Outside of that, the former top prospect showed the success he discovered as a reliever in 2012 was no fluke. In 2013 he actually improved his rates across the board, holding lefties to a ridiculous 1.33 xFIP while fanning nearly 40% of them. Assuming he’s healthy, he should have no problem wrangling the role of Boston’s top lefty and is a sexy sleeper option in holds leagues.

Some may quibble that I have Breslow behind Miller. The Yale-educated lefty posted a 1.81 ERA in 2013 and many fans still remember his Game 4 performance in the American League Divisional Series where he struck out four straight batters in the heart of Tampa Bay’s order. But look deeper and there are red flags. Breslow’s SIERA was a far less superb 4.31, in large part because he just isn’t that impressive in the strikeout (13.9%) department. His career 9.4% BB% isn’t bad, but isn’t world-beating, either. He’ll need to rely on posting below-average BABIP and HR/FB% to continue his xFIP-beating ways and there’s too high of a risk/reward ratio here to invest.

Workman popped onto the scene in 2013 with a strikeout rate that vastly outranked any mark he put up in the minor leagues. The team plans to condition him as a starter, but with the glut of options available for the rotation, he’ll likely open the season in the big league pen. If he continues to put up good whiff numbers and acquit himself well in high-leverage situations, he could prove to be one of Boston’s more valuable relief pieces in 2014, but owners in holds leagues should take a wait-and-see attitude unless you can get him cheap.

Badenhop doesn’t strike out a ton of guys, has good control, gets a lot of ground balls, and is tough on righties. He fits well with the theme of the Red Sox bullpen but probably won’t see enough high-leverage situations to be a decent option, even in holds leagues. Fellow righty Alex Wilson is pretty much the polar opposite; striking out more guys with worse control, is a strong fly ball pitcher, and actually had reverse splits in 2013. Coming off thumb surgery, and a guy who still has options attached to his name, he might be a prime candidate to ride the I-95 shuttle all season.

With the “retirement” of Ryan Dempster, the Sox turned back to the free agent market for pitching insurance, inking the Springfield, Massachusetts native Capuano to a $2.25 million deal. He pitched to an adequate 3.87 SIERA in the pitcher-friendly National League West, but likely will find the sledding tougher on the Junior Circuit. The team expects him to fill multiple roles, and with Felix Doubront tentatively penciled in as the team’s fifth starter, he’s the most likely candidate to open the season and Boston’s primary swingman. Could be a medicore streaming option with some spot starts against good opponents, but holds very little fantasy value as a reliever.

Looking up the totem pole
Drake Britton
Francisco Cordero
Rich Hill
Rubby de la Rosa
Allen Webster

Britton acquitted him well in a short stint with the big club last season (21 IP, 3.52 SIERA), but Capuano’s signing may have dashed his shot at opening the season in the big league pen. Cordero is 39, didn’t pitch in 2013, and saw his SIERA go up every year (outside of 2011) since the end of 2006. He’s worth writing about given his lengthy major league history, but he’s a major longshot to sustain any modicum of fantasy value. The team brought the lefty Hill back into the fold after a year in Cleveland. He was better than his 6.28 ERA indicated, but on a minor league deal, he’s likely going to need an injury to Miller or Breslow to see time in Boston.

de la Rosa and Webster are two wild card arms who likely won’t be locked into starting or relief roles until the season begins. Both will still be groomed as potential rotation men if they are in Triple-A (the most likely scenario) but both are the owners of big fastballs and K% numbers that scream “we play up in the bullpen!” That latter attribute could nudge the team to try them in the big league pen similar to the manner guys like Trevor Rosenthal, Matt Moore, Shelby Miller, and Kevin Gausman have been used in recent years. If that scenario comes to fruition, I am a huge fan of using young fireballers to stabilize ratios and provide extra strikeouts from a SP slot on days without schedule starters (Gausman posted a 1.44 xFIP while tossing another 23 K’s my way in August/September last year) so keep an eye on their status.