Bard should bolster bullpen

Spring training is less than five weeks away. Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein appears to have wrapped up his offseason shopping, barring a minor tweak here or there.

Time to take a look at the team he has assembled, position by position. We'll start with the bullpen.

2009 performance: If the Red Sox appeared to have a clear edge over the Los Angels Angels entering the division playoffs, it was in the bullpen. Instead, Ramon Ramirez and Takashi Saito combined to give up a couple of seventh-inning runs that turned Game 1 into a blowout, late-season pickup Billy Wagner pitched himself into a jam in the eighth inning of Game 3, and Jonathan Papelbon couldn't rescue Wagner, then self-immolated in the ninth inning, when he allowed the three runs that gave the Angels the series. A bullpen that ranked second in the American League to Oakland with a 3.80 ERA and was second in preventing inherited runs from scoring could not finish the job in '09.

Papelbon had 38 saves and blew just three to remain one of the game's elite closers, but he walked three times as many batters as in '08, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was a career-low 3.17 and his overall command was unpredictable. Overall, the bullpen ranked 16th in on-base percentage, 18th in slugging, and 17th in WHIP. Saito finished strong and proved worth the gamble on his elbow. Manny Delcarmen hid a tired arm from the Sox for three months, which probably accounts for his terrible second half. Ramirez appeared to wear down in September. Hideki Okajima was generally reliable, but his home runs were up and his strikeouts down, and his ERA, admittedly not the best indicator for a reliever, was more than a full run higher than in 2007 (2.22 to 3.39).

Departures: RHP Wagner signed as a free agent with Atlanta. LHP Javier
Lopez, who had been outrighted last season to Pawtucket, signed as a minor-league free agent with Pittsburgh (major-league deal); RHP Saito signed with Atlanta.

Newcomers: RHP Scott Atchison, RHP Boof Bonser, LHP Fabio Castro, RHP Ramon A. Ramirez, LHP Brian Shouse.

In-house candidates: RHP Fernando Cabrera, LHP Dustin Richardson, RHP Michael Bowden, RHP Junichi Tazawa.

Upgrade over 2009?: A qualified yes.

The big difference here should be Daniel Bard, who is ready to inherit the primary eighth-inning setup role in tandem with Okajima while also serving as closer-in-waiting in the event the Red Sox unload Papelbon before he becomes a free agent after 2011. Bard's power numbers (11.49 Ks per 9 IP), 2 or more Ks in six straight games in July (8.2 IP), including three straight games of 3 Ks or more, set him apart as a potentially devastating weapon.

Okajima, whose contract didn't allow for free agency like the deals of many of his fellow Japanese players, turned 34 on Christmas Day but remains one of Boston's more astute pickups. The 6-foot-6 Richardson, converted from starter to reliever a year ago, put up terrific strikeout numbers in Portland and Pawtucket last season and struck out 18 in 11 2/3 innings in the Fall League, though he also walked 10. He should have the inside track if Terry Francona elects to keep a second lefty.

Another lefty who will get a look is Brian Shouse, the 41-year-old getting his second go-round with the Sox. Shouse, who last season pitched for Tampa Bay, signed a minor-league deal with the Sox but received an invitation to spring training. He made a cameo appearance for the Sox in 1998, pitching in seven games (0-1, 5.62).

Bonser, the former Twin, missed all of last season with a torn rotator cuff and labrum. He is out of options so he projects to start the season as long man if healthy, although the Sox also have to decide what to do with Tim Wakefield, with their rotation going six-deep. Bowden, Tazawa and 5-7 lefty Castro all figure to be in Pawtucket's rotation to start the season.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Follow him on Twitter or ask a question for his next mailbag.