Sox have strong bullpen support system behind Uehara

Sox have strong bullpen support system behind Uehara
February 26, 2014, 12:00 am

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Purely out of a sense of desperation, the Red Sox stumbled into the perfect closing candidate last season and watched Koji Uehara steamroll over the rest of baseball, all the way to the clinching Game 6 in the World Series.

It's open for debate whether Uehara can be that good again in 2014, since, for one thing, he'll turn 39 in the first week of the season.

But even if Uehara has some slippage in performance, the Sox would seem well-positioned to support him with one of their deeper bullpens in recent memory.

The Red Sox signed veteran Edward Mujica in the off-season, himself fresh off a 37-save season for the St. Louis Cardinals. Additionally, the Sox have a number of other late-inning options, including lefties Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller along with Junichi Tazawa.

Tazawa, who stumbled in a brief closer audtion before the Sox turned to Uehara, rebounded from an inconsistent second-half to star in the post-season.

In 13 appearances in the post-season, covering 7 1/3 innings, Tazawa yielded a single run while fanning six and walking just one. It was a reminder of just how dominant he can be, and that has continued early in camp.

"The thing he does so well in bring good stuff to the mound every time," said John Farrell. "He's a strike-thrower (just 12 walks in 68 1/3 innings) and controls the running game...The way he's throwing the ball right now, he's going to pitch in some high-stress situations."

According to Farrell, Tazawa "has the ability'' to one day fill the role of closer.

Breslow worked 61 innings and posted a 1.81 ERA while limiting opposing hitters to a .635 OPS. Miller, before he went down with a broken bone in his foot in early July, was overpowering at times, averaging a league-best 14.1 strikeouts per nine innings.

All together, Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves have more bullpen options than a year ago, enabling them to manage Uehara's workload while retaining multiple back-up plans for the late innings of games.

Farrell can mix and match through the seventh and eighth while not placing too great a burden on any one of his set-up relievers.

"It starts with strike-throwing,'' Farrell said. "All (four of those guys), they've got a long track record of (throwing strikes). They don't create havoc on the basepaths by issuing bases on balls. They've got an out pitch, they've been effective against opposite sides of the plate.

"They have characteristics that allow you to have that trust in them.''

Uehara worked a career-high (in MLB, at least) 88 innings between the regular season and the post-season, the latter of which, of course, represented the most stressful outings possible for a reliever.

If the Sox want to be mindful of not overworking him, they have the options.

"Particuarly in the early part of the season," said Farrell, "any time you don't have to go to the same guys (every nigth) with a lead, and you have that kind of trust, that gives us the potential of having guys remaining stronger and fresh as we get deeper into the season.

"We set out to have a deep and quality bullpen."

Farrell acknowledged that Mujica would probably be his first choice for save situations when Uehara is not available, and, in something of a surprise, also mentioned Miller.