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While the battle is on for the final spot in the Boston's seven-man bullpen, it's noteworthy that the Red Sox used 20 different relievers in 2009, meaning that whoever breaks camp with Boston is not guaranteed a full-season job. The Sox head into 2010 with five of the seven bullpen spots presumably locked up by Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, Daniel Bard, Ramon Ramirez, and Manny Delcarmen. Boof Bonser seems like a safe bet to fill the long role out of the Boston bullpen, leaving just one spot for the likes of Brian Shouse, Alan Embree, Joe Nelson, and Scott Atchison. To fill that last spot, Terry Francona has indicated that he hopes to head north with another pitcher that can get left-handed batters out.
Of the four primary relievers in the picture, those who don't make the big league club will likely be assigned to Pawtucket, although Embree has an opt-out if he’s not added to the big league roster by April 15 and Shouse could retire rather than accept an assignment to Triple-A. Here's a brief look at the pitchers battling for the last spot in the bullpen and a rundown of some other pitchers that may serve as depth in 2010:
Alan Embree: The 40-year-old Embree is a veteran of 16 major league seasons, including time with Boston from 2002-2005. He missed half of the 2009 season after breaking his leg in July. The Sox recently signed the lefty reliever as bullpen insurance. He has held opposing lefty bats to a .239 average over his career, often serving in a setup role rather than that of a lefty specialist. His first appearance in a big-league game this spring is scheduled for Saturday. He could end up in Pawtucket or extended spring training until April 15 while the front office makes the determination of whether to add him the major league roster.
Brian Shouse: Shouse, 41, is a 10-year veteran who spent the 2009 season with Tampa Bay, putting up a 4.50 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP in 45 games. He has primarily served as a specialist over his career, holding opposing left-handed batters to a .213 average. So far this spring, the left-hander is 1-0 with a 0.96 ERA, striking out 6 while allowing 8 hits and a walk in 9 1/3 innings. While Shouse has performed well in his short time, the Embree signing says a lot about the front office’s impressions.
Joe Nelson: Nelson has had an injury-riddled career, pitching in 148 major league games spanned over 2001, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009. However, he's been fairly successful when healthy, and in 2009 the right-hander went 3-0 with 3 saves and a 4.02 ERA in 42 games with Tampa Bay. He's held opposing lefties to a .215 average over his career, but has also demonstrated success against righties to the tune of a .237 opponent batting average. So far this spring the 35-year-old is 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in 9 innings of work. He’s undoubtedly in the running for the final major league spot, but his minor league deal also allows the Sox to start him in Pawtucket if need be.
Scott Atchison: After putting up mediocre major league numbers with Seattle and San Francisco from 2004-2007, Atchison signed a minor league deal with the Red Sox in December 2007, but Boston turned around and sold his rights to Hanshin of the Japanese Central League. The right-hander pitched impressively for two seasons in Japan, but returned home this past offseason due to a medical issue in his family. He's also put up impressive splits over his career, holding left-handed bats to a .222 average. Now 34, Atchison is 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA in 8 2/3 innings this spring. Look for Atchison to see a lot of time in the Boston bullpen in 2010 even if he doesn’t break camp with the Sox.
The 40-man reserves
The next wave of bullpen options include six relievers slated for Pawtucket, three of whom are already on Boston's 40-man roster. Among those on the 40-man, Dustin Richardson, a 26-year-old left-hander with a 92-93 mph fastball, is the most highly regarded. The former fifth-round pick struck out 97 batters in 77 1/3 innings in 2009 between stops in Portland, Pawtucket and Boston. He should be given plenty of opportunities to pitch with the big-league club in the future, having three option years remaining, and could ultimately be a mainstay in the Boston 'pen.
Ramon A. Ramirez, 27, has fringy stuff but has demonstrated a lot of success against lefties in his nine-year minor league career. He is also 1-1 with a 2.97 ERA in 16 major league games with the Reds over 2008 and 2009. Boston claimed the righty off waivers from Tampa Bay this past December, and he should get some chances to contribute with the Sox this season.
Fabio Castro is a small left-hander that could find himself in the mix for Pawtucket's rotation, but could also be a bullpen option. Signed as a free agent this December, Castro has put up a 3.00 ERA in four spring games with Boston.
The next wave
Of the relievers not on Boston's 40-man roster, Fernando Cabrera is the most likely to see time with the big club in 2010. As Pawtucket's closer in 2009, Cabrera dominated International League competition, earning 22 saves while putting up a 1.71 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP. However, while he's demonstrated regular success at Triple-A, the hurler has struggled when given major league opportunities, putting up a 5.12 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP in 131 big league appearances with three different clubs, including a subpar stint with Boston in 2009.
Jorge Sosa is a 31-year-old righty with a 92-94 mph fastball and a decent slider, sporting a 4.72 career ERA over five organizations and six seasons. He could be a victim of a roster squeeze in Pawtucket, particularly after missing the first two weeks of the spring due to visa issues.
Competing with Sosa for a spot in the PawSox bullpen is Robert Manuel, a tall righty who relies almost exclusively on his low-90s fastball. Despite his limited arsenal, Manual has impressed in his minor league career, going 24-17 with 19 saves and a 2.88 ERA over five seasons. He also pitched in three major league games with the Reds in 2009, giving up 5 hits and no runs in 4 1/3 innings. In three games with Boston this spring, Manuel stuck out 4 and allowed a hit and no walks in 2 1/3 innings.
The wild cards
A number of other pitchers on the bubble for a roster spot in Pawtucket could also serve as major league depth. Chad Paronto and Scott Patterson both have major league experience, but due to a roster crunch both are likely fighting for spots with the PawSox. Paronto 34, is a native of Woodsville, N.H., and a UMass alum. After selecting Dustin Pedroia in the second round of the 2004 draft, Boston picked two soft-tossing lefties in the ensuing rounds -- Andrew Dobies in the third round and Tommy Hottovy in the fourth round. Both pitchers made it to Portland by 2006, but due to injuries neither have been able to earn a promotion to Pawtucket after four seasons in Double-A. A change of scenery to an organization where they can get more innings might do both well. Relying mainly on a major league caliber cutter, T.J. Large dominated Double-A in 2009, earning 8 saves while putting up a 1.08 ERA in 34 games. However, he hit a wall in Triple-A, putting up a 7.63 ERA and walking 22 batters in 30 2/3 innings. By the end of spring training, any of these five relievers could find themselves in Triple-A serving as immediate depth for the major league club, in extended spring training, or perhaps even with another organization.
As a general rule of thumb, most “prospects” that end up in the major league bullpen come up through the farm system as starters. As such, Michael Bowden and Junichi Tazawa are obvious bullpen options in 2010. Two other minor league starters that could end up in the Boston bullpen in the next 18 months are Kyle Weiland and Kris Johnson. Weiland, 23, was a third-round pick in 2008 out of Notre Dame. His arsenal is reminiscent of Justin Masterson, and like Masterson he could come up as a multiple-inning reliever or as a spot starter. Johnson, a former supplemental first-round pick out of Wichita State, struggled mightily with Portland and Pawtucket in 2009, leading to speculation that the left-hander will be transitioned to the bullpen in 2010. He also struggled in major league spring training this season and will need to right the ship in order to be considered an option for the Boston bullpen. Two minor league relievers to watch are Bryce Cox and Jason Rice. Both should start the season in Double-A, and with continued development could prove themselves to be big league options in the near future.
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