Theo Epstein in hot pursuit of relievers

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein is making progress in his search for bullpen help, and says he has a number of offers on the table for both right- and left-handed relievers.

Epstein said he planned to meet with agents and other team executives Tuesday night, but wasn't expecting to close any deals.

"We've had offers out on a few guys for a while now," Epstein said. "Before we got down here, we had a few instances. Those haven't gone anywhere. We've made a few other offers here as well.

"In some cases we're getting close to what could be a deal if we wanted it to be, and others we're still far apart.

"We'll know more [Wednesday]," Epstein said. "There are some agents that seem like they want to get something done here, but right now they're just saying that and we're not into the final negotiating phase with anybody."

The Red Sox have met with representatives for free-agent reliever Brian Fuentes, but he's no doubt seeking a major payday and an upgrade from his last contract, which was worth $17.5 million for two years. Epstein has been reluctant in the past to give relievers generous long-term deals, but he realizes he may have little choice.

"For the right player, I would come to grips with it," he said.

There's a reason why every general manager in baseball is seeking bullpen help.

Reliable relievers are a rare commodity in today's game. The Red Sox witnessed firsthand in 2010 how a struggling and ineffective bullpen can hamper a team's chances of reaching the postseason. When Epstein arrived at the winter meetings late Monday night, he admitted that improving the Boston bullpen -- whose ERA was third-worst in the American League last season -- would be a priority.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona concurred.

"I think the bullpen is important. We probably lost some games there last year that hurt us," Francona said. "That's a hard way to lose games, especially when you want to be a good team. When you lose games late, you feel like the next day you have to come back and win another one just to catch up, it's a tough way to play."

Former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, who is now the manager of the Blue Jays, is also seeking bullpen help for Toronto. His wish list for an effective reliever is simple.

"You can rely on just overall stuff at times, but pitching behind in the count too often, particularly in this division, is going to come back and haunt you," Farrell said. "So the ability to throw strike one is key."

Rays manager Joe Maddon also spoke about the importance of a reliable bullpen.

"The most devastating part of a team is when a team loses late on a consistent basis," Maddon said. "When you have games won in the seventh and eighth, and you're losing a lot of the eighth- and ninth-inning games, the tone in the clubhouse at that time is where it can really go south."

The Red Sox can't rely solely on the right arms of Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard, and it's clear Epstein is in the market for a left-hander. The GM said he's meeting with Hideki Okajima, who is a free agent, but the Japanese reliever is not the solution.

Fuentes, who was not offered arbitration by the Minnesota Twins, could help but may be too rich for Epstein's blood. And with the recent signing of reliever Joaquin Benoit to a three-year, $16.5 million contract with the Tigers, the market may have to settle down a bit before Boston bites.

The foundation is there with Bard and Papelbon, who are considered one of the best bullpen tandems in the majors.

Even though Papelbon's numbers dipped in 2010, anyone who suggested to Francona that his closer was struggling would usually get a strong rebuke.

Sure, the hard-throwing right-hander increased his walks (28) and home runs (7), while posting a career-high 3.90 ERA in 65 games, but he still registered 37 saves. Francona acknowledges that Papelbon wasn't at his best in 2010, but the manager believes 2011 will be different.

"I think it starts with command of his fastball. He had to work last year, it seemed, harder in innings than he had in the past," Francona said. "That starts with the command of his fastball and the location of his split.

"I know he's working on his slider. But if Pap throws fastball, split and he's down in the zone and locates, he'll be fine. Every closer's going to give up a game once in a while, but he'll be fine. His velocity's still good. He's in good shape, he's a strong kid. He just needs to not have to work so hard on some of those innings."

The Red Sox recently made an offer to closer Mariano Rivera before the future Hall of Famer re-signed with the New York Yankees. Francona was asked Tuesday afternoon whether he's talked with Papelbon about the club attempting to woo Rivera from New York.

"No, I will," Francona said. "I'd reach out to Pap from time to time, but he may not even know."

If the Red Sox are not willing to give Fuentes the type of money he's looking for, Epstein and Francona have in-house talent that may be able to do the job.

Late last season left-hander Felix Doubront was converted from a starter to a reliever at Triple-A Pawtucket just in case Boston needed the help. It did, and Doubront performed well given the circumstances. He could be an option for Epstein.

Francona and Farrell always spoke highly of Doubront's abilities.

"Really interesting kid," Francona said Tuesday afternoon. "He obviously has the ability to start maybe in the near future. Maybe the way our team sets up, maybe he's in the bullpen. Whether it's for a year and then [he] transitions into a starting role, I don't think there would be anything we'd do that would throw him or knock him back.

"He holds runners, he throws strikes. He's not afraid of his fastball. He's a really interesting guy. Kind of a nice name to have when you're looking at building your bullpen, knowing that you have a lefty with three months' service time that you feel confident you can give him the ball somewhat late in the game. That's a nice feeling."

Doubront, 23, appeared in 12 games (three starts) for the Sox and posted a 2-2 record with a 4.32 ERA. He was shut down in September because of a strained muscle near his neck. Francona said Doubront is healthy and should be ready for spring training.

It's also been reported that the Sox would consider bringing back Manny Delcarmen on a minor league deal, but he may well find work elsewhere. Delcarmen, whom the Red Sox traded to Colorado in July, was nontendered by the Rockies.

Despite all the obstacles, Epstein seemed pretty confident the Sox would acquire bullpen help sooner rather than later.

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.