SARASOTA, Fla. -- A major league scout from a National League team watching the Red Sox earlier this week volunteered that he could see the Red Sox taking the same sort of leap forward that the Baltimore Orioles did a season ago.
The reason? Much like the '12 Orioles, who went from winning just 69 games (the same number of wins the Sox had last year) in 2011 to 93 wins and a playoff spot a year ago, the bullpen could be a key.
"(The Red Sox) have a lot of quality arms, a lot of options in that bullpen," said the scout. "That will allow (manager John) Farrell to match-up. And when you have a deep pen, it means guys like (John) Lackey only have to five or six innings."
The Orioles had only one starting pitcher reach double figures in wins -- rookie Wei-Yin Chen -- and the rotation ranked ninth out of 14 American League teams with an ERA of 4.42.
But the bullpen saved the team, ranking third in the A.L. with an ERA of 3.00, covering up a multitude of other sins.
The Boston bullpen is indeed deep, aided by the addition of closer Joel Hanrahan, obtained in a Janaury trade. Hanrahan's arrival pushes Andrew Bailey back to the eighth inning set-role.
Koji Uehara, one of the game's most consistent relievers in the last several seasons, and Junichi Tazawa, who blossomed in the second half last year while displaying closer-quality stuff, can also be used in the late innings. If Daniel Bard, returned to a reilef role after a disastrous and lost year as a starter, could return to his previous form, the Sox would have an excess of late-inning options.
Then, there's the presence of three lefthanded relievers: Craig Breslow, Andrew Miller and Franklin Morales.
Having three lefties "particularly in our division, when you consider the number of lefthanded hitters that we'll face in any one of those teams... you can describe that as a luxury."
Further, Farrell added: "We do have a lot of number of options that can not only matchup, but they can take care of a clean innings and attack both lefties and righties."
A year ago, the Red Sox bullpen was a mess even before Opening Day. Bailey suffered a freak thumb injury in mid-March, eventually requiring surgery that sidelined him into mid-August. That forced Bobby Valentine to go with Alfredo Aceves as his fill-in closer, and while Aceves settled into the role in time, his first week resulted in two blown saves.
By the time pitchers got settled in their re-shuffled roles, the Sox were already drifting into contention.
Having a quality bullpen is one of the surest predictors of success. Last year, six of the top eight teams with the best ERAs in the American League had winning records. Four of the top seven teams made the post-season. Of the five A.L. playoff teams from a year ago, only Detroit -- which won the pennant -- had a bullpen ERA worse than the league average.
The Sox, of course, are depending on their rotation to be much improved over a year ago when Jon Lester had his worst season and John Lackey missed the entire year recovering from Tommy John surgery.
A turnaround season from the starters is important, but having a dependable core of relievers could be a hedge against some starters not performing as expected.
Lackey was known as a durable innings-eater before suffering his elbow tear, but if he's unable to go deep into game, especially early in the season, the Sox have bullpen options to cover some of the outs.
Of course, as Farrell noted, the opposite is also true.
"It still holds," he said, "that what helps to make a good bullpen is a strong rotation that works deep into games and then (relievers) aren't getting overused."
But a quality bullpen is a key component in winning close games -- the Orioles, for example, were 29-9 in such contests last year -- and extra-inning games -- exactly the sort of success that makes the difference between a winning season and a losing one.
And beyond the matchup possibilities, the Sox have pitchers who can get swings-and-misses late in the game. Hanrahan, Bailey, Bard, Uehara and Tazawa have all averaged a strikeout per inning at some point in their recent history.
"Fewer balls in play is a good thing," agreed Farrell. "The margin of error certainly grows with that kind of stuff."