McAdam: It's on starters to aid bullpen issues

McAdam: It's on starters to aid bullpen issues
May 8, 2013, 12:00 am
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There's a popular saying in baseball that gets uttered whenever there seems to be a surplus at a position or a potential numbers crunch on the roster.
These things have a way of working themselves out.
And so they do, for good or bad.
Exactly a week ago, the Red Sox were trying to choose between two proven closers for ninth-inning duties. Ultimately, they went with Andrew Bailey with Joel Hanrahan given set-up chores.
Now, they're both on the disabled list, as the Red Sox have gone from one too many closers to none at all in what seems like record time.
Junichi Tazawa will handle closing for what seems like the short term, since Bailey will be eligible to come off the DL as early as next Tuesday, when the Sox begin a nine-game road trip.
Surely, Tazawa is capable of holding down the job for the rest of the homestand.
The closer's role can be remarkably fluid under the best of circumstances. Tampa Bay's Fernando Rodney had one of the most dominant season of any modern-day closer last year, with 48 saves in 50 save chances and a WHIP of just .077.
This year? Rodney has already blown as many saves in his first 11 outings as he did in 76 appearances a year and ago. And while he averaged just 1.8 walks per nine innings last year, this year, he's averaging 7.6 walks per nine innings, a ratio more than four times greater.
When performance rates aren't dictating changes, injuries sometimes do.
The last two World Series champions both finished the season with different closers than the ones with which they began.
In 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals switched from Fernando Salas to Jason Motte and still won it all. Last season, the San Francisco Giants lost Brian Wilson to Tommy John surgery in April, and ended up winning it all with Sergio Romo -- but only after using Santiago Casilla closed for much of the season.
The second week of May is way too early to be worried about healthy closers. Even after the New York Yankees lost Mariano Rivera, arguably the best closer in the history of the game last May, they still won 95 games and went on to win the American League East.
That's not to suggest that closers are necessarily replaceable. It does suggest that what happens to them in May in no way dictates how the regular season will go.
Further, neither the biceps injury to Bailey nor the forearm problem with Hanrahan is likely to be long-term. Neither setback will derail the season.
The focus on the closer, in fact, only serves to obscure the actual pitching problem the Red Sox are currently battling: lack of innings from their starters.
While Ryan Dempster pitched well in defeat Tuesday night, allowing two earned runs in seven-plus innings, he became the first Red Sox starter to reach the eighth inning since April 25.
Felix Doubront, exiled to the bullpen, has gone past the fifth inning just twice in his first six starts. John Lackey, still rebuilding arm strength following a season lost to Tommy John surgery, remains a work in progress. Even Jon Lester, who is 4-1, has failed to get past the sixth inning in his last three starts.
Regardless of who's closing, the Red Sox can't regularly be going to their bullpen in the sixth inning if they're going to remain in contention. As injuries deplete the pen in the short-term, longer outings from the starters aren't a luxury -- they're an absolute necessity.
Soon enough, Bailey will be healthy again, allowing Tazawa to go back to the seventh inning and Koji Uehara to handle the eighth, with Craig Breslow now available as a lefty alternative.
But it's what the rest of the staff does before the final two innings or so that will determine the Red Sox' success long-term.