By Sean McAdam
After sitting out the auctions for a handful of middle and set-up relievers for the past week, deeming the price and especially the length of the contracts too steep for their tastes, the Red Sox went on the offensive Thursday, signing free agent Bobby Jenks to a two-year, 12 million deal.
The deal is contingent on Jenks passing a physical either Friday or Saturday and includes performance bonuses that could earn Jenks as much as a 1 million more each season.
Jenks, who was non-tendered by the Chicago White Sox last month, will serve as one of the Red Sox' two primary set-up men. He'll also be ready to step in if Papelbon falters in 2011 and may be his replacement in 2012 if, as it is widely expected, Papelbon leaves for free agency after next season.
The Sox had balked at the deals being handed out to the likes of Jesse Crain (three years, 12 million with the Chicago White Sox), Matt Guerrier (three years for 12 million with the Los Angeles Dodgers) and Scott Downs (three years, 15 million), all of them set in motion by the three-year, 16.5 million deal the Detroit Tigers gave Joaquin Benoit last month.
And though the Sox handed Jenks the highest average annual value (6 million) of any reliever this winter, they also got someone with proven closing experience.
Over 5 12 seasons with the White Sox, Jenks saved 173 games in 199 chances for the White Sox. As a rookie, he served as Chicago's closer during its World Series championship season of 2005, converting five of six postseason save opportunities.
In 2010, Jenks posted a career-high 4.44 ERA and had a WHIP of 1.367, also the highest of his career. But there's statistical evidence that Jenks was often the victim of bad luck, with an abnormally high batting average of balls in play at .354. Such a high number usually suggests that pitchers were merely unfortunate, with an unusually high percentage of balls finding holes.
In fact, using Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) -- which aims to determine a more accurate ERA -- his ERA should have been a far better 2.59. And his strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.39 was his best since 2007 and would have led all Red Sox relievers in 2010.
"I think there's a lot of upside there,'' said a major league scout who saw Jenks often in 2010. "His velocity is still there. I had him at 95 mph most of the time. His curve ball isn't the power curve it was earlier for him, but it was still plenty good enough. And I like having a guy who's closed in a set-up role. Nothing's going to bother this guy.''
Jenks missed most of September after appearing in both ends of a doubleheader on Sept. 4 -- ironcially, a sweep of the Red Sox which effectively knocked Boston from playoff contention.
He experienced some tendinitis in his right elbow in the the final weeks, though he was cleared to pitch in the final week. The White Sox, also eliminated from postseason contention, elected not to use Jenks.
There have also been concerns about Jenks' conditioning. At 6-foot-4, he was listed at 275 pounds, a figure he probably topped. But said one major league evaluator: "He's basically been overweight most of his career.''
If Jenks performs well in 2011, he'll be positioned to replace Papelbon as the Sox' closer in 2012. That would return him to his favored role, while providing the Red Sox with a relatively affordable -- to say nothing of experienced -- closer.
The Sox' bullpen now boasts Papelbon, Bard, Jenks, lefty Felix Doubront and veteran Tim Wakefield, leaving two spots open for competition in spring training.
The Sox on Thursday came to terms with Matt Albers on a one-year deal for 875,000 (non-guaranteed) and he'll be in the mix, along with lefties Andrew Miller (re-signed by the Sox Thursday after being non-tendered earlier this month), Lenny DiNardo, and Rich Hill.
The club remains in negotiations with Dan Wheeler, a Rhode Island native who's pitched in the A.L. East for Tampa Bay. Wheeler would like a two-year deal, which the Sox won't give, but may take a one-year deal to pitch closer to home.