First pitch: Red Sox bullpen overhauled ... again

First pitch: Red Sox bullpen overhauled ... again
August 1, 2012, 2:16 pm
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Overhauling bullpens from one season to the next is commonplace in baseball. By definition, relievers are effective one year and not so the next, creating an annual state of flux. The overachieving middle man one year turns back into a under-performing journeyman the following season.

But this year, the Red Sox are making their adjustments in-season, time and time again, and by the looks of things, are about to begin their third iteration of relievers.

It began in the final week of spring training when the team lost closer Andrew Bailey to a thumb injury, forcing a shuffle that saw Alfredo Aceves made into the team's ad-hoc closer.

And now, two-thirds of the way into the schedule, just as the playoff race is taking shape, the Sox are being forced into doing it again.

In the last few weeks alone, two relief mainstays have been taken out of the equation: Scott Atchison, sidelined last month with forearm soreness, now likely needs season-ending Tommy John surgery; and Matt Albers was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks Tuesday in
exchange for Craig Breslow.

That shuffle has the Red Sox adjusting a critical part of their team with slightly more than one third of the schedule remaining. But the team has options with which to make its adjustments.

Breslow gives the Sox, for the time being at least, a third lefty in the bullpen, joining Andrew Miller and Franklin Morales. As general manager Ben Chernigton noted Tuesday: "We felt like,
earlier in the year when we had three lefties (Morales, Miller and Rich Hill) was when our pen was really rolling the best and it will give Bobby a chance to match-up and use all three guys.
It certainly gives Bobby some flexibility for the rest of the year if he needs to use Morales as a starter. So hopefully, there are a couple of benefits.''

The Sox have three series and nine games remaining with the lefty-leaning New York Yankees and having Breslow to come into the game in the seventh or eighth inning to face Robinson Cano or Raul Ibanez, or to turn switch-hitters Mark Teixeira or Nick Swisher around to the
right side could prove valuable.

And with Breslow and Miller already in the pen, the Sox could spring Franklin Morales into a spot starter's role, giving them the potential to throw a lefty in all three games, joining Jon Lester and Felix Doubront, each of whom beat the Yankees last weekend.

The loss of Albers and Atchison can be covered soon enough. Bailey is another half-dozen rehab appearances from returning to the major league roster.

Assuming the Sox eventually have Bailey reclaim the closer's role, that frees Aceves to shift into the set-up spot, more than making up for the innings that will be lost because of the trade of Albers and the injury to Atchison.

Aceves, remember, thrived in such a role last season and his durability makes him an invaluable weapon. Because Aceves prefers as much work as possible -- Valentine has already used him to finish 19 non-save situations -- he can contribute multiple-inning stints.

Aceves can team with Vicente Padilla to form a formidable righthanded-duo for the seventh and eighth innings, while the three lefties -- a fourth could be on the way as Rich Hill rebounds from his own forearm issues -- give Valentine plenty of late-inning matchup possibilities.

Junichi Tazawa has emerged, too, as an effective middle weapon. Since rejoining the team July 15, Tazawa has allowed just two runs over his last nine innings of work, while averaging a strikeout per inning.

Finally, waiting in the wings is Daniel Bard, who could yet have an impact on the final two months if he can continue to harness his control. In Bard's last five outings, covering five innings, he's walked just two.

Following a rocky first three weeks of the season, the Red Sox bullpen has sported a 2.32 ERA, best in the major leagues.

This time around, Valentine won't have a three-week grace period as he evaluates and assigns roles. But he's much more familiar with his personnel by now, which should speed up the process.