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Sox still have one big hole

Guerrier is coveted as GM Epstein tries to fix bullpen

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / December 14, 2010

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The Red Sox traded three top-tier prospects to San Diego for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and only a few days later invested $142 million to sign free agent left fielder Carl Crawford.

But general manager Theo Epstein has yet to fix the biggest problem on his roster.

The bullpen remains, if not a mess, at least a work in progress. Closer Jonathan Papelbon is coming off the worst season of his career and the only reliable pitcher behind him is Daniel Bard, the primary set-up man. Epstein has been saying for weeks that he needs to make at least two acquisitions on the trade or free agent market.

But so far there has been no action.

“We’re pretty focused on the bullpen at this point. It’s the one area of the club that’s not really set yet,’’ Epstein said.

Sox relievers had a 4.24 earned run average last season. Among the 14 teams in the American League, only the lowly Orioles (4.44) and Royals (4.46) were worse.

The Boston bullpen was second in the league with 22 blown saves and led the league by giving up 63 home runs. Sox relievers averaged only 7.55 strikeouts per nine innings, just above the league average.

“I think the bullpen is important. We probably lost some games there last year that hurt us,’’ manager Terry Francona said last week during the winter meetings. “That’s a hard way to lose games, especially when you want to be a good team. When you lose games late, you feel like the next day you have to come back and win another one just to catch up; it’s a tough way to play.’’

The Sox have identified at least five free agents as possible fits. Righthanders Jesse Crain, Kevin Gregg, and Matt Guerrier are possibilities along with lefthanders Brian Fuentes and Andrew Miller.

The Sox have had offers out on some of those players for several weeks now. Major league sources said the durable Guerrier is one player the Sox especially covet.

Guerrier, 32, has appeared in at least 70 games in each of the last four seasons for the Twins. His WHIP the last two seasons is 1.04.

“We still have some room to do some things,’’ Epstein said.

Epstein does not discuss payroll space. But based on last season and those players acquired and discarded so far this winter, the Sox have approximately $11 million remaining to flush out the roster.

Under Epstein’s stewardship as GM, the Sox have tried to avoid giving out multi-year contracts to middle relievers, knowing such deals rarely prove worthwhile given the inherent inconsistency of such pitchers.

But Epstein said last week that he had “come to grips’’ with the idea that it would take such a contract given the active market for relievers. Lefthander Scott Downs, for instance, received three years and $15 million from the Angels Friday.

The other avenue would be a trade. The arrival of Gonzalez and Crawford helped to make several prospects superfluous. First baseman Lars Anderson, outfielder Josh Reddick, third baseman Will Middlebrooks, and outfielder Che-Hsuan Lin are among the players the Sox would consider moving to acquire bullpen depth.

Anderson and Reddick, who have major league experience, could be attractive to a small-market team.

If the Sox believe Jed Lowrie can handle the rigors of a full season, veteran shortstop Marco Scutaro is another possible trade chip. He is due only $5 million next season, making him a reasonable acquisition for a team seeking to upgrade.

The Sox need two pitchers Francona can rely on in the seventh inning to help get the ball to Bard. They started last season with righthanders Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez in that role along with lefthander Hideki Okajima.

Delcarmen and Ramirez were traded July 31 after four wildly inconsistent months. Okajima stuck around for the entire season despite having his worst season, then was cast aside earlier this month when Epstein decided against offering him a contract.

“We know we need to make our bullpen deeper,’’ Francona said.

The Sox do have some in-house options. Felix Doubront, a 23-year-old lefthander, had a 4.66 ERA in nine relief appearances last season. But he struck out 13 and walked only two in 9 2/3 innings out of the bullpen.

Doubront missed the final month of the season because of muscle soreness near his neck and left shoulder. He is now healthy and will go to spring training with a chance to make the team.

“He could really help us,’’ Epstein said. “There were a lot of things about Felix that impressed us last season.’’

The Sox decided to bring back Scott Atchison, a righthander who worked more than one inning in 25 of his 43 appearances. Tim Wakefield also remains under contract and said earlier this month he would be more accepting of being an occasional starter and long reliever after resisting that role last season.

“I think we’ll be OK,’’ Bard said last week. “Pap is going to come back strong, I bet, and you know Theo will get us some help. It’s just a matter of who they decide to go get.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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