Around the Horn: Bullpen
Plenty of candidates abound to assume closer's role
The following is the sixth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Bullpen.
BOSTON -- Doing everything in his power to avoid bullpen attrition in 2007, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein has stockpiled his roster with a plethora of qualified relievers. In fact, the Red Sox are sure to be in a bullpen numbers crunch when it comes to paring down the 25-man roster on the eve of Opening Day in Kansas City.
Most of what you've heard about the Boston bullpen this winter is that there's no established closer. Perhaps not enough has been made of the strength in numbers that manager Terry Francona seems primed to have once his starters come out of a game.
The closer position will sort itself out in Spring Training and perhaps the early portion of the regular season. But that uncertainty is cushioned by the fact that the bullpen has far more options than it did a year ago.
If you want to give Epstein a good chuckle, tell him that he might have too many relievers.
"It's hard to remember the last time that by the time we got to June or July we weren't looking for a league-average reliever somewhere," said Epstein. "We're always in a position where you have to trade for that guy. You don't want to end up giving up a prospect for a reliever in June or July. With the rate of attrition with pitching in general, especially with bullpens -- especially with our bullpen -- I think the more quality you have, the better off you'll be."
The best place to start when it comes to the composition of the Boston 'pen is the man with the most experience. That would be venerable setup man Mike Timlin, who is determined to prove that his problems a year ago had little to do with age and everything to do with a right shoulder that never seemed to recover following the World Baseball Classic.
The Red Sox share that belief, which is why they quickly re-signed the 40-year-old Timlin before the free-agency period even started.
"Mike went to the [World Baseball Classic], came back, his shoulder was weak, he never had a chance to get going," Francona said. "He's been on a program this winter, [and] I think he is going to have a huge rebound year."
When Timlin is at his best, he is a fierce protector of slight leads or tie games in the seventh and eighth inning. With a biting sinker, he is often just a pitch away from getting out of a sticky situation.
Often times over the past four seasons, the Red Sox have been too reliant on Timlin. The hope is that Brendan Donnelly can change that this season and take much of the load off Timlin.
Donnelly has pitched in plenty of high-pressure situations for the Angels the past few seasons and come up big. Even though last year was far from his best, he still went 6-0 with a 3.94 ERA.
Boston Red Sox
The Mr. Versatility Award among Boston's relievers probably goes to Julian Tavarez. At various points of the season, you are likely to see Francona use Tavarez in every conceivable role. From long relief to middle relief to setup and perhaps even closing, Tavarez has the makeup to handle whatever he's asked to do. The next time he says he's too tired to take the ball will probably be the first.
And Tavarez also proved last year that he can start when the need arises. Only look for this to happen in doubleheaders or at times when the staff has suffered one or more injuries.
The wild card in the bullpen is Joel Pineiro. A starter for most of his career, Pineiro seemed to find a groove late last season when the Mariners moved him to the bullpen. Can he be a full-time reliever? The Red Sox plan on finding out.
Pineiro is one pitcher who will definitely have a chance to win the closer job.
"That starting thing, that's in the past," said Pineiro. "If I get the chance, I get the chance, but my thought process now is to go out there and try and close things out."
The Red Sox don't just have veteran righties in their 'pen. They also have the hard-throwing tandem of Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen. Last year, Hansen and Delcarmen spent the majority of the second half in the Major Leagues out of sheer necessity. With the amount of depth the Red Sox have now, both men will be forced to earn their keep.
One thing the Red Sox never did in 2006 was replace left-handed specialist Mike Myers. That fact was never more obvious than in the five-game sweep the Red Sox endured against the Yankees in August when Bobby Abreu, Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi seemed to get a hit each time they stepped to the plate with runners in scoring position.
A year later, the Red Sox have multiple lefties who plan on breaking camp with the team.
One is veteran J.C. Romero. He is coming off the worst season of his career, but he is also just a couple of years removed from being one of the best lefty relievers in the game. Romero is a clear example of a buy-low move by the Red Sox.
"Romero's been a guy who a few years ago was emerging as one of the top left-handed relievers in all of baseball," Epstein said. "I think now is really the time to get him, given his acquisition cost being a lot more affordable than it was a few years ago and certainly when we tried to trade for him back in '05."
If Romero stumbles again, Boston has another lefty option in Japanese free agent Hideki Okajima.
More than just a lefty specialist, the Red Sox are confident in what Okajima can bring to the staff.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.