Makeup of Boston's bullpen still unclear

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Handicapping the Boston Red Sox's bullpen, two weeks before the start of the regular season:

The layout

Total number of jobs: 7

Locks: Jonathan Papelbon (closer), Hideki Okajima, Daniel Bard, Ramon S. Ramirez (the incumbent Ramon), Manny Delcarmen

Open positions: 2

Ahead of the pack

Boof Bonser. The former Twin, 13 months removed from surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff in his right shoulder, has been hitting 91 to 93 on the radar gun and has had no setbacks physically. He also is out of options, meaning the club could not send him down to the minors without him clearing waivers first. The Sox could trade Bonser, but they've had interest in him for some time and he also has starting potential if the need arises.

New contender

Alan Embree. The Red Sox sent scout Kyle Evans from Arizona to watch Embree throw last week, and saw enough to sign him to a low-risk minor league deal that will pay him a base salary of $500,000 if he makes the big league club. The biggest question with Embree is whether he has enough time to be ready for the start of the regular season. He thinks he does, but the guess here is that the Sox will play it safe and leave him in Florida when camp breaks.

The pack

Joe Nelson, who two years ago pitched very well for the Marlins, then saw his velocity drop and his Vulcan changeup lose its movement with the Rays last season, said Saturday that he has detected a flaw in his mechanics and fixing it is allowing him to pitch better, and with more velocity, than he has in 16 months. Nelson figured out why his stride had shortened, made the correction, and has been exhilarated by the results.

Scott Atchison, who returned from Japan to take his shot, has drawn praise from manager Terry Francona ("He throws three pitches for strikes"), and 40-year-old Brian Shouse has put up good numbers (1 ER in 7 1/3 IP, 5 K's), but gotten very lukewarm reviews from scouts. Junichi Tazawa is the long shot, but it makes more sense for him to start the season in Pawtucket's starting rotation.

The questions

Delcarmen's velocity: The 28-year-old right-hander has averaged 94.8 mph on his fastball in his career, according to FanGraphs, and last season, despite telling the Red Sox he had a fatigued shoulder the last two months of the season, still averaged 93.9 on his best pitch.

His velocity this spring has been noticeably down (88 to 90), and Saturday he topped out at 91. But Francona insisted there are no arm issues -- "If it was a red flag, we wouldn't be pitching him" -- and Delcarmen, reiterating his manager's assertion, says he has been working on some mechanical changes with pitching coach John Farrell and hasn't let it go yet.

It didn't help, Delcarmen said, that he had the flu Saturday, got sick while throwing long toss before his inning of work, then got nauseous while on the mound.

"I've just been working on a couple of things with Farrell," Delcarmen said. "Staying back, and driving the ball downhill. But I feel real good, real strong, there's just a couple of things I'm trying to do, break my hands and not lean forward. The last thing I'm trying to do is overthrow and let go."

"Once the season starts and everything clicks, [the velocity] will be there."

Delcarmen said Farrell called him in the offseason and advised him that they'd be taking his delivery into the shop.

"I'm not going to lie," he said. ''After last year with my shoulder and stuff, the last thing I'm worried about is letting it go right now. But the shoulder feels good. If I need to throw 92 to get guys out, I'd rather do that than overthrow and something stupid happens."

Delcarmen said that the mechanical adjustments are also helping his secondary pitches. He threw a terrific changeup down and in to Garrett Atkins that resulted in a swing and miss. "I stayed back, and that's definitely where I want my changeup to righties, down and in. I threw one good breaking ball, which I was happy about."

One club source who has watched Delcarmen closely this spring agreed with the assessment that his shoulder is fine. "He's not hurt," he said. "His arm looks great."

Delcarmen, too, is out of options; if his velocity were normal, he would probably be drawing some trade attention, but right now scouts are leery.

Ramirez's ineffectiveness: Ramirez walked four batters in an inning and gave up two home runs this week, but Francona professed unconcern. "He's fine," Francona said.

The assessment

Nelson, for one, is realistic about what Embree's arrival does to his own chances.

"The Red Sox owe it to the people who own the team, the Red Sox nation, everybody, to exhaust every possible avenue," Nelson said. "That's their job, that's why they're good at what they do. They'll bring in a truck driver, if he says he can throw 90 miles an hour and throw a splitter. And if they check him out themselves, and he can, they'll probably keep him around a little bit and look at him.

"They have to exhaust every avenue, and I expect that from every organization I'm with. I'm not rooting against Atch or Shouse or Em. We can only do what we're capable of. In the end, the decision is going to come behind closed doors and we're not going to have any say in it besides what we do on the field.

"They're looking for a certain person, a certain spot, chemistry is involved, your ability to pitch is involved, it's more than, 'Ah, we're picking this guy, he has the best numbers.' I've been on teams where I've had a better spring than guys and they didn't go that way.

"I'm not mad at Alan. I'm not. The Red Sox as a front office owe everyone to exhaust every possible resource, and Alan is a 17-year veteran who's had tremendous success. We're going to see in a couple of days how far along he is."

The reminder: There are still two weeks before the regular-season opener on April 4. Things change -- an injury, a deal, a setback. But this is how it looks, on the first day of spring.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.