So, itís come to this: Mannyís got a grill.
These are tedious times in Red Sox spring camp, where a lack of fresh storylines, controversy, and competition has everybody but the Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce itching for April to move it along. Less than two weeks remain until Curt Schilling toes the hill in Kansas City on Opening Day, and hey, did you maybe hear that heíll be a free agent at the end of the season?
Less than two weeks remain for the Red Sox to officially name a closer (did you hear they donít have one?) or risk entering the season with the dreaded aura of a bullpen by committee, a phrase that arouses about as much ire in your average New Englander as the Manhattan guy who first mixed tomatoes in the chowder.
But as much as you donít want to hear it, guess what the Red Soxí solution to their closing ailments just might be? Indeed, the old BBC (bullpen by committee).
For all the woe is us and sky is falling that plagued Red Sox fans in 2003 when the franchise announced it was going with a closer carousel to open the season, itís easy to forget that the team went 18-9 in the seasonís first month, which opened with Chad Foxís infamous implosion in St. Pete. And that just happens to be the most wins to start a season since (15-6 in 2004, 12-11 in Ď05 and 14-11 last season).
In fact, for as supposedly disastrous as the closer by committee experiment was, Boston was 31-23 over the first two months of the 2003 season with a group of spare parts that would be shuttled in and out the door before the trade for Byung Hyun-Kim. Thatís just as many wins as they had through the first two months last season with Jonathan Papelbon shutting the door in the ninth and in 2004, when Keith Foulke stabilized the situation with 10 saves through May.
Oh, the bullpen to open 2003 was terrible all right, a precursor that possibly led Grady Little to lose faith in the late innings of that fateful October evening in the Bronx. And yet still, the Red Sox went on to win 31 games over the seasonís first two months, the same number as they did one year later, which ended in a World Series title, and last year, when they ended up in third place in the American League East.
So, really, do you think Theo Epstein should be concerned in March about whoís going to be this teamís full-time closer?
All that really matters at this stage is that the Red Sox have some competent arms that might get the job done now that Papelbon is committed to the starting rotation. That could be Joel Pineiro on Opening Day. It could be Julian Tavarez that weekend in Texas. Or it could be Brendan Donnelly coming out to mop up the ninth on Fenwayís Opening Day.
While everyone is clamoring and complaining that itís inane that a team with a $150 million payroll doesnít have a full-time closer, it is perhaps even dafter for the Red Sox to tab one before they officially open the season. What happens say if Pineiro is named the closer on April 1, only to blow a few games and be demoted to a mop-up role come May before nominee No. 2 walks into the gate? Despite his recent spring scoreless streak, Pineiro has never closed full-time, and to ask him to grasp the situation could be unfair in a carnivorous atmosphere like Boston if the fans are wont to think this is their official closer for the season. Can he do the job? Who knows? Heís never done it. Tavarez has here and there, but heís not exactly coming off a stunning season. Donnellyís role as a setup man is probably more crucial now that Mike Timlin is down for the start of the year.
Those are pretty much your options as we hurtle toward April. None are stunning, but nor is any of them as frightening as Fox or Jason Shiell either.
You could argue that the Sox went through a BBC last season, which lasted all of two days of course when Papelbon proved he was a better go-to option than Foulke. This season, the greater likelihood exists that the Red Sox will go with what theyíve got until a better option emerges, whether that be a more polished Craig Hansen by the July break, or a less dramatic price for the likes of Chad Cordero, Scott Linebrink, or Akinori Otsuka. Or it could be Pineiro right out of the gate.
But the bottom line is, the Red Sox donít know what theyíve got in that bullpen just yet, so what sense does it make to fully define the role of closer when nobody knows whether the guy next week is the same come June? Did you think Curt Schilling would be coming into games in the ninth inning in 2005?
What good does it do, besides quieting down some fans and media types, to attempt to define a role in March that might be completely altered in a few weeks? Let Pineiro close, but leave some room for Tavarez, maybe. Maybe see if Hansen gets it come June, much like Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals a season ago. And if on the off chance Papelbon is struggling in the rotation, check out how his shoulder is holding up come midseason if youíve exhausted all other options.
Terry Francona could announce next week that Pineiro is his man, and the righty could whip out a 40-save season for all we know. But the greater likelihood is that the man they hope to closing games out in October is either not here yet, or starting the season on a lower rung of the organization.
Whitey Herzog only went to the seventh game of the World Series in 1985 with a bullpen by committee, and despite the bad bullpen that it was, Little was one brain cramp away from the Fall Classic. If 2003 proved anything, it wasnít that the theory of a BBC is a bad idea, itís that, just like with any other aspect of the game, youíve got to have competence in there too, not just spare arms.
It can be argued whether the Red Sox actually have those, but thatís also something you canít possibly expect to find out with St. Patrickís Day barely in the rear view mirror. Perhaps by the time Memorial Day creeps into view.
Until then, if you feel more comfortable having Pineiro named your closer, than donít be surprised if youíre calling for Timlin to get a shot when he gets off the disabled list. Then, maybe youíll want to rush Hansen, or trade him and Manny Delcarmen for Cordero.
Or you could just call it what it is, closer by committee. Because even if it all turns out as bad as 2003, history has shown us that this team can either win the World Series or battle the Orioles for fourth place. I mean, Iíd want to wait and see who could actually do the job instead of basing it on a few spring outings against non-roster invitees, no?
Closer by committee. Say it. Admit it. Donít be afraid.