Ask any general manager in baseball and he will gladly tell you depth is the single greatest problem he has to deal with. Such is the case for Theo Epstein and the Boston Red Sox this season when it comes to the bullpen.
The Red Sox have at least six quality arms that manager Terry Francona and pitching coach, John Farrell, will have to sort out as pitchers and catchers are set to report to spring training. We all know about Jonathan Papelbon, the greatest young closer in the game today, looking to make his mark for on history in the future.
This past season, he became the first Red Sox closer in history to record three 30+ save seasons. However, the strength in this bullpen lies in the guys who will have to set up Pap.
Justin Masterson, last year's "Mr. Versatility," is set to begin the year in the bullpen. After being called up last year as a starter, Masterson thrived before Francona moved him to the bullpen to limit his innings and help his development.
Who could have expected he would have been Francona's go-to-guy in the playoffs, dominating the opposition in the toughest of spots? Look for Masterson to begin the year as the eighth-inning guy to get to Papelbon and a situational right-hander with his deceiving arm slot and excellent movement.
Also look for Hideki Okajima to have a strong year, after starting poorly in '08. After his slow start, Okajima finished with a nifty 2.61 ERA, solidifying himself as a guy Francona can trust in clutch situations.
Not pitching in this year's World Baseball Classic also should help Okajima, because he admitted he was not ready for the laborious season of Major League Baseball. Time off should only help him to get ready for this season.
Manny Delcarmen showed signs last year of promise that the Red Sox have been looking for since they drafted him in the second round of the 2000 First Year Player Draft. Look for Delcarmen to be the seventh-inning man or even a situational pitcher against right-handers.
He needs to work on his consistency with his changeup, but his upper-90s fastball and devastating curveball will make him a dominant force this year.
The Red Sox finally came to a decision about Coco Crisp this offseason, trading him to the Kansas City Royals for right-handed middle reliever Ramon Ramirez. The trade, long overdue, adds another high velocity hurler to Francona's 'pen.
Appearing in 71 games last year, Ramirez had an impressive 3-2 record with a 2.64 ERA and one save. Look for Ramirez to state his case in spring training in order to determine his role in the bullpen. He should certainly battle with Delcarmen for the seventh-inning responsibility.
Theo Epstein made yet another low-risk, high-reward signing in Takashi Saito. Papelbon admitted after the 2008 ALCS that he was just about spent, this should help alleviate some of the ninth-inning stress for Francona if Papelbon can't go that night. Having put up dominant numbers over his three years in the majors, Saito was non-tendered by the Dodgers this past year because of arm problems.
Although he is 39, look for Saito to be Papelbon's replacement in the ninth inning, as well as an important situational arm.
All of the depth in the Red Sox bullpen stirs the idea that the Red Sox could use a reliever as trade bait during spring training or once the season starts. That is just speculation now but look for the Red Sox to at least entertain trade ideas because of their incredible depth.
Information borrowed from Yahoo! Sports and MLB.com
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