There were several questions about the bullpen during our chat on Monday. Every team in baseball, it seems, has questions about its bullpen depth and fans always feel a little angst before the season.
Unlike position players and starting pitchers, relievers are hard to project from season to season. The elite closers are usually fairly consistent, but other relievers can be terrific one season and awful the next. Pitchers end up in the bullpen, for the most part, because they lack something and often that is consistency.
The statistics are much harder to judge as well. Wins and losses are almost meaningless for relievers and saves aren't necessarily an indicator of success. It's better to look at WHIP or OPS against. For specialists, all that really matters is how they handle either right-handed (or left-handed) hitters.
If a reliever sucks up up three innings in a rout one day in May and gives up a bunch of runs, his ERA is probably shot for the season. But that doesn't mean much as far as the manager, pitching coach and GM are concerned. How he handles certain situations in winnable games are what teams try to evaluate.
All that said, let's look at who the Sox will be taking a look at down in Fort Myers. They have seven spots to fill:
IF HEALTHY, THEY'RE IN
RHP Jonathan Papelbon, closer
RHP Daniel Bard, set-up man
LHP Hideki Okajima, set-up man
RHP Ramon S. Ramirez
These guys are all pretty secure. They're under contract and pitched well in 2009. They're going to camp to get in shape.
CAN'T TAKE ANYTHING FOR GRANTED
RHP Manny Delcarmen
RHP Boof Bonser
Both of these pitchers are on the 40-man roster and under contract. But Delcarmen had a rough second half of 2009 then revealed he has been hiding a shoulder injury. That didn't please the Sox. Bonser was acquired from Minnesota on the cheap in December after missing nearly all of 2009 following surgery. If healthy, he could become the long man.
CANDIDATES FROM THE 40-MAN ROSTER
RHP Scott Atchison
LHP Fabio Castro
RHP Robert Manuel
RHP Ramon A. Ramirez
LHP Dustin Richardson
The Sox cast a wide net this winter, using waiver claims and minor trades to add Atichson, Castro, Manuel and Ramirez to the roster. Richardson is a giant (6-6, 225 pounds) lefty who has come through the farm system. He had a breakthrough 2009 season after converting to the bullpen. If the decision is made to keep a second lefty, he could be the choice.
RHP Fernando Cabrera
LHP Kason Gabbard
RHP Devern Hansack
RHP Edwin Moreno
RHP Joe Nelson
RHP Scott Patterson
RHP Kelvin Pichardo
LHP Brian Shouse
RHP Jorge Sosa
RHP Chad Paronto
Some (if not many) of these guys will get cut, others will go to Pawtucket and there's a decent enough chance one of them will actually make the team. You never know.
RHP Michael Bowden
Bowden did not fare well in 16 major-league innings in 200, but pitched well for Pawtucket as a starter. He's only 23, so the Sox will likely continue to try and develop him as a starter. But if a need arises or he stalls as a starter, he could switch over the bullpen.
Not including Bowden, I count 21 relievers. The Sox should be able to fill their needs before Opening Day. But the bullpen on April 4 will almost certainly change significantly before September rolls around. For now, it's nothing to get too worked up over.
UPDATE, 6:36 p.m.: Some people astutely commented that Tim Wakefield could figure in the bullpen mix. That is certainly the case. For now, I'm figuring they'll take the six starters into spring training and see what everybody looks like health-wise come April.
There are three scenarios for Wake:
1. No. 5 starter. That would likely mean somebody else got hurt. The Sox seem very determined to use Buchholz as one of their starters. He's 25 now and has done all he can do in AAA.
2. Limbo role as a long man, spot starter.
3. Starting the season on the DL.
Wakefield has 141 relief appearances in the majors and actually has better numbers than he does as a starter. (See his career splits for more details). But given the strength of their rotation, the Red Sox may not need a long man often enough to merit having one. Bonser could fill that role, as well.
These things always seem to work their way out. If having too much pitching is a problem, then the second "problem" will be when to print the playoff tickets.