Part 7 of a 10-day series on Red Sox questions that will be answered during spring training.
BOSTON -- Can we, for the moment, talk about how much fun it should be to watch the Red Sox bullpen this season?
First there is Daniel Bard, the kid who is a dead ringer for Charles Kelley, lead singer for one of country music’s biggest hitmakers, Lady Antebellum. Bard acknowledges he hears the comparison all the time, and actually had a buddy who worked on the group’s tour and was told by Kelley he hears the same thing in reverse. The difference being, of course, that Bard last summer threw a baseball 49 times at 100 mph or more in a game, and overall averaged 97.9 mph on his fastball, which made him the game’s most consistent speed king in 2010.
Then there is Jonathan Papelbon, who has often inspired watchers to wonder which side of mentally balanced he falls on, with his wild celebratory jigs, eye-bulging stares and rebel yells. Papelbon’s potent brew of fearless, reckless and how-crazy-is-he worked wonders until the Angels pierced his aura of invincibility in ousting the Red Sox from the 2009 playoffs, then turned sour last summer, when he put up the worst performance of his career.
And now there is the newcomer, Bobby Jenks, who comes in XXL, wears a whisk-broom beard straight out of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and arrives with a back story as raw and rough as that of David Wells and his Hell’s Angels upbringing. Oh, and did we mention Jenks averaged 95 mph on his fastball last season and has back-to-back 40-save seasons to his credit?
These are the three pitchers to whom Terry Francona will most often turn over the back end of games, the Sox manager granted the rare luxury of having three power arms eminently capable of closing. Papelbon and Jenks have both won World Series rings as closers, while experience in the role is the only element missing from Bard’s dance card.
Papelbon has never been faced with the circumstances he will encounter this season. He is in his last season before he is eligible to become a free agent, which brings its own pressure to perform. He has another proven closer as a teammate, one who is signed for another year and remains wired to be a closer, regardless of what he might say about being satisfied to serve in a subordinate role. And he has an immensely talented young gun waiting in the wings.
The economics bring their own form of pressure. Papelbon, who elected to go year-to-year rather than sign a long-term contract, won his gamble, his salary for 2011 at a heady $12.5 million. But for all the assurances the Red Sox have given Papelbon that he is their closer, they offered a two-year deal to Mariano Rivera before he re-signed with the Yankees. And even if Papelbon returns to form this season, the Sox may not be willing to offer him salary arbitration this winter, the only way they are assured of getting draft picks if he signs as a free agent elsewhere. Are the Sox prepared to let Papelbon walk without getting anything in return, or will they shop him? A fair question.
As for the rest of the pen, it’s highly unlikely there will be a repeat of the open auditions the Sox held for their bullpen in the last week of spring training in 2010, when Scott Schoeneweis and Alan Embree parachuted in. GM Theo Epstein has stockpiled arms -- veteran Dan Wheeler from the Rays is another lock from the right side, with the three other spots inviting a free-for-all. Tim Wakefield, more accepting of a return to the pen then he was a year ago, would like a chance for a last hurrah, but he’ll be competing with holdover Scott Atchison and Matt Albers, late of the Orioles.
There are a slew of lefties, and while two lefties are typically a preference, it’s not a necessity when you have a right-hander (Bard) who last season held left-handed hitters to a .141 average. Hideki Okajima will be given a chance to win his way back into Francona’s graces, but the most intriguing lefty candidate is Andrew Miller, who was Bard’s teammate at North Carolina. Miller was drafted ahead of Bard and made it to the big leagues the same season, and is still young enough to be rescued from the oblivion he is headed toward after failed trials with the Tigers and Marlins. Then there is the in-house candidate, Felix Doubront, who may open the season in Pawtucket only because the Sox prefer his future as a starter.
Had the Sox bullpen remained effective last season, the team might have made the playoffs despite its crippling series of injuries. Instead, it was a mess, with Papelbon blowing 8 saves (while saving 37), Okajima losing all semblance of reliability, and the Sox jettisoning right-handers Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez in midseason. On paper, Epstein has made major repairs. It remains to be seen how it holds together.
What do you think of the Red Sox bullpen? In the comments section of this blog entry, give us your list of arms you think will comprise the Boston relief corps this season.
Coming Wednesday: Who will be closing games for the Red Sox come September?