The baseball world, and Boston in particular, is abuzz over the Red Sox bullpen this season. Coming off a year in which Sox relievers were Major League Baseball's eighth-worst (4.24 ERA, behind even the Mariners, Nationals, and Mets), Boston surprisingly pursued Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, and ultimately acquired the White Sox's former closer, Bobby Jenks.
Now, with Papelbon returning from what appears to be an anomalous off-year (3.90 ERA, eight blown saves), and both Dan Bard and Bobby Jenks seemingly ready to take over from the seventh inning onward, the Red Sox look firmer in the late innings than they have in quite some time.
Hideki Okajima, once one of the most reliable eighth inning relievers in baseball, may have to spend some time in the minors just to make room for all the talent this season. The Boston Globe has already taken to calling the Bard-Jenks-Papelbon combination "The Big Three."
Not so fast.
Hardball history is littered with the remains of highly-touted pitching staffs that inexplicably fall apart come game-time. One need look no further than Boston's 2003 disastrous experiment with closer-by-committee to remember just how far-reaching the consequences of overestimation can be.
Remember "Cowboy Up?" That phrase, popularized by the chatty Sox first baseman, Kevin Millar, became a rallying cry in the late innings eight years ago. But while the statement recalls moments of extra-inning and playoff glory, such last-minute heroics were largely made necessary by the frequent colossal meltdowns of the Sox bullpen.
That year, Boston's relievers finished third-last in the majors with an appalling 4.87 ERA—trailing only Texas and Kansas City in bullpen incompetence. Adding insult to injury, Boston's team save percentage—63%, with 21 blown saves in 57 opportunities—ranked ninth-worst.
Of course, the 2003 Red Sox didn't have any pitching trio even approaching the collective star power of Bard, Jenks, and Papelbon. And theoretically, there should be enough experience in supporting roles (Tim Wakefield comes to mind) to overcome even the occasional slump of the top dogs.
But what it really boils down to is temperament. A big part of the reason for Boston's dramatic failed experiment with closer-by-committee was the nonexistence of defined roles. Closers crave stability. They like knowing they'll be called on in the ninth inning with a lead; they tend to struggle in tied games and with small deficits.
Even the great Mariano Rivera's performance declines (somewhat) when pitching in a non-save situation.
Having one multiple-year All-Star, and another closer-caliber pitcher lurking in the shadows, may or may not help motivate Papelbon since he is likely already on edge after a less-than-successful 2010. If he stumbles out of the gate with a few subpar appearances, and Francona is eventually forced to switch things up, the perception of instability in the bullpen could make a bad situation worse.
The good news is that this all seems very unlikely. All three pitchers (with perhaps a partial exception for Bard) are relatively seasoned athletes, and they've all exemplified calm under pressure on multiple occasions.
This is especially true of Papelbon, whose years of regular-season mastery are matched only by his subsequent dominance in postseason play. If he can quickly relegate his disappointing 2010 to the dustbin of history, the 2011 Boston Red Sox will already be well ahead of the pack.