The Boston Red Sox are faced with a question they don’t want to be answering this early in the season: Is Joel Hanrahan capable of being the closer?
Boston acquired Hanrahan over the offseason from the Pittsburgh Pirates with the intention that he, and not Andrew Bailey, would be the closer for 2013. Hanrahan saved 76 games combined over the last two seasons for the Pirates whereas Bailey pitched well for the Oakland Athletics in 2011, but missed the majority of the 2012 season with Boston due to a thumb injury.
At the time of the trade, Boston assistant general manager Brian O’Halloran thought that although Bailey was capable of closing, the Red Sox wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to add a two-time All-Star to the mix, according to Joe McDonald of ESPN Boston.
The problem is that Hanrahan hasn’t started his career in Boston on the right foot. He was miserable in spring training, allowing 10 earned runs (11 total) in 8.1 innings of work. Even still, he entered the regular season. Things haven’t gotten much better, though, as the right-hander currently has the highest ERA on the team after allowing six earned runs in 4.2 innings across five appearances.
And then there was Wednesday night’s debacle when Hanrahan entered the game in the ninth with Boston leading the Baltimore Orioles, 5-3. The first batter he faced, the red-hot Chris Davis, homered to center field to cut the lead to one. After retiring the next two batters, he became wild and allowed the next three batters to reach.
Hanrahan bounced the first pitch to Manny Machado, which allowed the tying run to score. Machado then hit a bomb over the Green Monster, giving Baltimore a three-run lead. That was it for Hanrahan as manager John Farrell yanked him right after.
So can Hanrahan really handle the closing duties?
Why Boston Should Stay the Course
Boston has only played in eight games this season and although Hanrahan blew the save and took the loss on Wednesday night, that game probably won’t cost the team much. If the Red Sox miss the postseason by one game, then part of the blame could be directed Hanrahan’s way.
But the point is that it’s still ridiculously early. The Red Sox still have 154 games left to play before the regular season comes to a close. Sure, Hanrahan didn’t have the spring training that other Red Sox players did, but up until Wednesday night, he hadn’t been bad at all. Entering the game, Hanrahan was 3-for-3 in save opportunities and had only allowed one run in four innings of work.
Hanrahan isn’t going to be successful every time that he takes the mound. If it were known that he was going to, Boston would’ve had to give up much more in order to land him over the winter. But the Red Sox didn’t really have to give up much talent to do so.
Hanrahan hasn’t been as sharp as he could’ve been this early in the year, but looking at his career, he’s never been very sharp in March or April. In fact, it’s arguably when he’s usually at his worst. Conversely, his best games are usually thrown in May, so if Boston can just wait out this little slump he’s having, he’s sure to make up for it sooner rather than later.
It also may be taking a little longer than expected for Hanrahan to make the transition from the NL Central to the AL East. The AL East is a little tougher to pitch in and some pitchers have a tougher time making the switch than others. But what’s also important is that Farrell still has confidence in him (h/t WEEI).
“He’s obviously our closer,” said Farrell. “I think coming over and learning this league, understanding that there’s power up and down the lineup, particularly the top half, and this club, they can drive the ball out of the ballpark. I think as Joel is making his way through the American League, particularly the American League East, location is key, particularly in those late-inning moments.”
For now, it appears that Hanrahan’s job is safe, but Bailey is making a compelling case to change Farrell’s mind.
Why Boston Should Mix Things Up
It’s vital that the Red Sox get off to a great start this season, especially after coming off of a pair of very disappointing seasons in 2011 and 2012. Every win is important and it’s essential to keep in mind that a win in April is just as valuable as a win in September.
Through the first bit of the regular season, Boston has been exceeding initial expectations. The Red Sox have been playing well, which cannot be said for most of the other teams in the AL East, such as the Tampa Bay Rays or the Toronto Blue Jays, who many projected to win the pennant this season.
One of the reasons Boston has gotten off to such a great start is because of the bullpen. Koji Uehara has yet to allow a run in three innings of work, Clayton Mortensen has allowed just one run in four innings and then there’s Bailey, who’s been brilliant. An AL manager told Jon Heyman of CBS Sports that the Red Sox have the top bullpen in baseball. Heyman agreed that they have good arms, but chose the Washington Nationals’ pen instead.
Bailey, who remember has been manning the eighth inning this season instead of the ninth, has been the difference maker. He has four holds in four appearances and hasn’t allowed a run in 3.1 innings of work while striking out six batters and walking just one. He already looks much better than last year, when he finished the season with a 7.04 ERA in 19 appearances.
Aside from last season’s woes, there’s no reason to doubt that Bailey couldn’t handle the pressure of retaking the closer duties. He had a couple of poor outings in 2012, but before that, he was one of the top closers in baseball. He had saved an average of 25 games per season over the course of the three previous seasons, all with the Oakland Athletics.
Part of the reason Bailey struggled may have been due to the fact that he missed such a large portion of the season. Bailey had surgery in early April to repair a torn UCL in his right thumb and didn’t take the mound for the Red Sox in the regular season until mid-August. It’s certainly a possibility that he came back too early or just didn’t have the time necessary to make the proper transition.
But what’s important to keep in mind is that Bailey is pitching well now. He’s healthy and proving to the Red Sox that he can pitch in any inning effectively.
Based on what’s been seen this season, although early, it wouldn’t be crazy to shake things up in the bullpen and allow Bailey to pitch in the ninth instead of Hanrahan. This wouldn’t necessarily be a permanent move, but it’s at least worth trying. There’s the chance that Hanrahan’s recent struggles are nothing to worry about, but if they are, it’s better to get ahead of them before Boston truly regrets it.
The issue is that the Red Sox will likely stick with Hanrahan for at least a little longer. Farrell said it himself that Hanrahan is still the team’s closer. Whether this is the best decision or not, we’ll have to wait and see, but there is a little bit of an interesting twist to the situation.
Boston revamped a lot of the roster over the winter with the intention of at least trying to contend this season. The front office believes that the way this team is constructed, it can win games, and it isn’t about to switch things up this early in the season.
There’s already been one perfect example. Over the offseason, the Red Sox signed Stephen Drew to be the starting shortstop since Jose Iglesias didn’t appear ready to take the job. But Drew got injured, Iglesias started the season as the starter and he played very well. But when Drew was ready to return, despite Iglesias’ improvements, the Red Sox sent him back to Triple-A.
What this means is that Boston thinks it’s much to premature to be making season-changing decisions, such as keeping Iglesias. But this also relates to Bailey and Hanrahan.
Boston traded for Hanrahan to be the closer and it may take a couple of blown saves for the team to move him into a different role. Although Bailey might be the better option at the moment, it seems that Boston will stick with the status quo.