2011 Preview: A Closer Look at the Boston Red Sox Bullpen

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2011 Preview: A Closer Look at the Boston Red Sox Bullpen
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Despite a continual decline, Hideki Okajima will be given a chance to redeem himself in 2011.

For the most part, there will be little drama and little suspense. 

The Red Sox will enter spring training with virtual locks at almost every position—except the bullpen.

Beginning just six days from now, the battle of the lefty relievers will present the greatest level of competition and intrigue. Currently, the Red Sox have Andrew Miller, Rich Hill, Lenny DiNardo and Hideki Okajima battling for just one spot. 

Additionally, the Sox just added free agent lefty Dennys Reyes to the mix, giving the 14-year veteran a minor league deal. Reyes had a 3.55 earned run average over 59 appearances with the Cardinals last season and has held left-handers to a .238 batting average over his career.

With the addition of Reyes, the Sox now have 20 relievers on their spring training roster.

Though the Sox want lefty Felix Doubront to be a starter and to begin the season in Pawtucket, if no one else steps up, he will be strongly considered for a spot in the pen. 

Here's a closer look at the current crop of lefty candidates for the Red Sox: 

The 30-year-old Hill has a devastating curveball, resulting in 358 strikeouts in 399.1 career innings—but he's had trouble locating in the past. Over parts of six major league seasons—including 84 appearances and 70 starts—Hill has a career 22-20 record and a 4.82 ERA.

After spending 2004-2006 with the Red Sox, the 31-year-old DiNardo is back with the team again. The lefty has a 5.36 ERA over six seasons and, consequently, was only granted a minor league deal by the club.

He is a long shot, however he does have Major League experience and may find a role in the pen at some point this season.

DiNardo had surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow last August. It remains to be seen how that will affect his ability to pitch or his mechanics. DiNardo was with the A's at the time, and Oakland director of player development Keith Lieppman described the lefty as having "a miraculously quick recovery."

The 35-year-old Okajima dealt with a dead arm and back problems throughout last season, his worst in four years with the Red Sox. But it was merely a continuation of a very troubling, long-term trend.

For four consecutive seasons, Okajima's ERA has steadily risen, more than doubling from 2.22 in 2007 to 4.50 last year. Of equal concern, over that same span, the soft-tossing lefty's WHIP has also risen continually, going from 0.97 in 2007, all the way to 1.72 in 2010. Lastly, Okajima's strikeout total has also dropped for three straight seasons. 

"Hello, Boston? We have a problem."

The 6'7" Miller possesses a fastball that has been clocked at 100 mph. New pitching coach Curt Young recently worked with Miller at Boston College, which can only be a good thing. Miller had trouble with his command in the past, but if that powerful fastball can be harnessed, the Sox may have found a diamond in the rough.

Young is working with Miller on refining his delivery and mechanics, which clearly got out-of-whack since leaving college. Miller was named Baseball America National Player of the Year and won the Roger Clemens Award as the nation's top collegiate pitcher, in 2006.

That same year, Miller was the sixth pick in the draft and was rushed to the majors after just three weeks. He was given no time to develop and it showed; Miller posted a 5.84 ERA in 79 appearances over parts of five seasons. However, he is still just 25 years old.

With five years of service time, Miller is out of options. Yet, he accepted a minor league contract with the Red Sox, so he can start the season in the minors if necessary. 

However, once he joins the big league club, he must remain with the team. Miller would first need to pass through waivers before being allowed to go back to the minors.

If Miller doesn't make the team out of spring training, he will likely begin the season as a starter in Pawtucket and continue his development. 

There will be plenty of competition for just one spot and that will be one of the most interesting things to monitor in Fort Meyers when spring training opens on February 15th.

Currently, the bullpen looks like this: Jonathan Papelbon, closer; Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks, setup; Dan Wheeler, Matt Albers, and Scott Atchison, middle; Tim Wakefield, long relief/situational. 

That's seven relievers right there, before the Sox have even determined who their lefty is. Given that the club will only break camp with seven relievers, an excess already exists in the reliever core, even before a much-needed lefty wins the final spot. 

Something's got to give, and somebody's got to go. The Sox will undoubtedly carry a lefty, which makes it a good bet that either Albers or Atchison won't make the team out of spring training.

As they say, stay tuned...

 

Sean is a freelance writer and creator of Kennedy's Commentary, a dedicated Red Sox blog. He has written for Baseball Digest and other magazines, newspapers and Websites.

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