One of the biggest issues for the Sox this season has been the bullpen. They have the 21st ranked bullpen ERA in baseball and are 18-27 in one-run games.
They simply haven't been able to win games late, and a major factor in that is their suspect bullpen. Their relievers put way too many hitters on base and aren't good enough to pitch through troubles.
Fixing the pen will be a challenge. They're stuck with some guys that struggled this year and finding dependable relievers isn't easy. However, there are some things they can do to try to improve their performance.
There are some pluses and minuses with the players that are likely to return in the bullpen.
On the bright side, left-handed fire-baller Matt Thornton will be back. Thornton has been their best and most dependable reliever on the year by a fairly wide margin. He has an ERA of 2.82 so far and has struck out well over a batter per inning. He gives them a solid option late in games.
Unfortunately, we don't know what to expect from the Sox other relievers.
D.J. Carrasco had a solid year in long relief, but it was by far his most productive year in the pen. That may or may not happen again.
Recent acquisition Tony Pena is also likely to return. He has quickly angered Sox fans with his numerous poor outings early in his Sox career. He has decent stuff, but seems to have little command of his pitches.
Bobby Jenks also had a poor year by his standards. After consecutive years with an ERA below three, he struggled for long stretches and has a 3.71 ERA so far. His strikeout rate has been much better this year, but he's also allowed a disturbingly high 9 homers this year. Can he return to form next year?
Making matters worse is the likely return of Scott Linebrink. Scott started the year extremely well, but has been god-awful since the All-Star break. He has an ERA approaching nine since then and WHIP is a ghastly 1.67 on the season. Unfortunately, he has 2 years and a fair amount of money left on his contract.
Changes in the pen?
First of all, Octavio Dotel is likely gone. His contract is up and I seriously doubt the Sox would match the $6 million he got on his last deal. While Dotel was dominant at times, he was another guy that let too many base runners reach.
There's also a distinct possibility that Bobby Jenks could be gone as well. While losing him would put even more pressure on the rest of the pen, he's likely going to get around $7 million in free agency and was not good this year. If they could get a solid return for him, I could see him being traded.
While most Sox fans would love to see Linebrink traded for a bag of balls, I doubt they'll find any takers unless they take on a worse contract.
Johnny Nunez will probably make the bullpen as well even though he's unproven, and Daniel Hudson might start the year there as well (though I'd personally prefer that he start games in Charlotte). Both have solid stuff and could theoretically be assets.
I have to think that they'll pursue at least one reliever in free agency. Depending on Pena and Linebrink to be your primary right-handed relievers is just asking for trouble.
Here's a list of some of the relatively productive veterans that will be free agents: Joe Beimel, Rafael Betancourt, Chad Bradford, Kiko Calero, Mike Gonzalez, LaTroy Hawkins, Trevor Hoffman, Brandon Lyon, Guillermo Mota, Darren Oliver, Rafael Soriano and Jose Valverde.
My guess is that the Sox will do some bargain hunting. Signing Dotel and Linebrink hasn't turned out particularly well, so I think they'll try to avoid giving sizeable guaranteed deals to relievers again.
Things don't look particularly good for the bullpen with the likely return of Linebrink and Pena.
However, one positive in this case is the high level of variance in the production of relief pitchers. Few teams have numerous multiple dependable relievers and the difference between a decent reliever and a bad one on paper can often be one bad outing.
There also isn't a whole lot of difference between a good bullpen and a mediocre one on paper: there is only four tenths of a run difference in ERA between the Sox 21st ranked bullpen and the 6th ranked bullpen of the Atlanta Braves. It won't necessarily take a total overhaul to see significant improvement, especially if someone currently on the roster gets hot.
I shouldn't have to tell Sox fans how unpredictable bullpens can be though. This year's unit appeared to be pretty deep and talented, while the lights-out group from the 2005 season looked highly suspect entering the season. You just never know when you're going to get a Neal Cotts, Cliff Politte or Dustin Hermanson like performance; you just can't count on getting more than one or two.
Thornton is one of the best left-handed relievers in the league, and if Jenks returns and is sharp he gives them another competent reliever. That could be a solid start to their relief core.
The biggest key for the Sox will be finding another dependable late-inning reliever. The Sox can probably get away with Pena and Linebrink as their fourth and fifth relief options that typically come in for lower pressure outings in the sixth and seventh innings.
However, they have to find someone that can get the key outs in close games and stop turning close games into 6-3 losses.
This is especially true considering the expected strength of their rotation; the Sox shouldn't have to cover four innings of relief very often. Only nine teams in the league have fewer bullpen innings thus far, and they should get even more innings from their starters next year with Jake Peavy replacing Jose Contreras.
The Sox won't necessarily need an elite bullpen to succeed; they just can't afford to have the pen screw everything up on a regular basis.