The Red Sox would love to see Andrew Bailey produce in the way they thought he would when trading for him last offseason.
Although the team hasn't landed the kind of premium player fans have become accustomed to, they should feel comforted by how they have built their bullpen into such a strong unit.
A unit that may end up being baseball's best in 2013.
The Red Sox bullpen was mostly a disaster in 2012. Andrew Bailey, Mark Melancon and Alfredo Aceves were beset by injuries, struggles and behavioral issues. A bevy of ineffective options passed through Boston by way of Pawtucket.
However, with a new season about to dawn, the Red Sox have the parts that should give them an incredibly deep relief corps.
The success of the bullpen may end up being defined by how well closer Andrew Bailey performs in 2013.
Last season he was beset with high expectations and an injured thumb after coming over in a trade from the Oakland Athletics. He had just a 7.04 ERA and six saves in 19 games, and never got on track during a lost year.
No matter how disappointed fans may have been by Bailey, they should be just as excited about the possibility that he can bounce back. In his three seasons prior to coming to Boston, he accumulated a Rookie of the Year award, two All-Star appearances and a combined 2.07 ERA.
Hard-throwing right-hander Mark Melancon was also brought in last year via trade after having served as a closer in Houston. He struggled out of the gate, leading to a demotion to the minors, before finishing with a 6.20 ERA in 41 major league games.
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However, in the eight games he appeared in after September 1st, he had a 0.90 ERA and struck out 13 batters in 10 innings.
There was nothing wrong with Melancon’s arm, as FanGraphs.com shows that his fastball averaged 93.1 mph, tying a career high.
According to the Boston Herald’s Scott Lauber, Melancon feels more at ease because of how well he finished 2012. Although his role for next season is currently undefined, he thinks he has what it takes to succeed and even close again.
“I still feel like I can close and do all that... I was just glad I could finish strong. That can tell you about somebody more than a lot of other things, when you go through those hard times.”
Volatile right-handed Alfredo Aceves is a third Boston reliever with closing experience.
He replaced the injured Bailey, and was more than serviceable at first, posting a 3.57 ERA and 22 saves through July. However, he went 0-4 with an 8.42 ERA the rest of the way, and even earned a three-game suspension for “conduct detrimental to the team.”
When his head is screwed on tight, Aceves can be incredibly versatile, pitching in multiple roles and displaying a rubber arm. If Boston can forgive his 2012 indiscretions, he could be an invaluable asset.
Even when you get past the pitchers with closing experience, the remaining depth in the Boston bullpen is equally impressive.
Southpaw Craig Breslow is as effective against lefties as he is against right-handed hitters (.226/.224 career batting average against splits for his career). He has also averaged 66 appearances over the past five seasons, showing he is as durable as they come.
A former top prospect, left-hander Andrew Miller, finally figured out things last season, posting a 3.35 ERA in 53 games, while striking out 11.4 batters per nine innings.
Japanese import Junichi Tazawa looked fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, as he bounced up and down between Boston and the minors last season. In 37 major league games he struck out a batter per inning and posted an impressive 1.43 ERA.
One would think Boston will have to find a permanent spot for him in 2013.
Most recently, the Red Sox signed free-agent right-hander Koji Uehara to a one-year, $4.25 million contract. He has career marks of a 2.89 career ERA and 0.92 WHIP in his four major league seasons. His 7.97 strikeout-to-walk ratio is an MLB record for pitchers with at least 100 innings.
Uehara may also be a strong mentor to his fellow countryman, Tazawa.
Beyond these pitchers, the Red Sox also have Clayton Mortensen, Chris Carpenter and Alex Wilson lurking in the high minors. Non-tendered free-agents Rich Hill and Scott Atchison could be brought back on minor league deals.
The wild card of all the relievers will be Daniel Bard. He failed spectacularly as a starter last season, posting a 7.03 ERA, walking eight batters per nine innings and reverting to the control problems that plagued him as a minor leaguer in 2007—which were outlined by the Boston Globe’s Amalie Benjamin.
CSNNE.com’s Maureen Mullen reported that Boston’s new pitching coach Juan Nieves has already made Bard one of his top projects for the upcoming season.
With any luck he can turn the wayward pitcher back into the dominant set-up man whose fastball averaged over 97 mph during his first three seasons in the majors, according to FanGraphs.com. If that were to happen, it could make Boston’s bullpen truly special.
Depth also brings problems.
With as many as 10 qualified relievers available for six or seven spots, the Red Sox may look to make some trades to take advantage of their surplus.
Regardless, the 2013 Boston bullpen looks to be stronger than it’s been in years.
No matter what other deficiencies fans may think the Red Sox have, they should feel good about the state of the bullpen.
The upcoming season will give this good unit a chance to prove if they are capable of being the best in baseball.
Statistics via BaseballReference