By Sean McAdam
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In trimming their roster Friday, the Red Sox' bullpen picture didn't get entirely clarified, but it sure came into sharper focus.
The Sox optioned Scott Atchison and returned Rich Hill and Andrew Miller to minor league camp, thinning the list of candidates for their available bullpen spots.
The moves effectively left four pitchers -- two righties and two lefties -- in contention for the two spots: left-handers Dennys Reyes and Hideki Okajima, along with right-handers Alfredo Aceves and Matt Albers.
Hill and Miller's demotions weren't terribly surprising. Hill had been adjusting to a new delivery, one which he tweaked as recently as this week, and could use some time adjusting to his mechanics. The Sox believe Miller has great upside as a starter, but are in no hurry to rush him, especially since he is out of options.
If there was a surprise, it was the optioning of Atchison, who spent much of 2010 with the Red Sox, and by the final two months of the season, had earned Terry Francona's unending respect and trust. Resillient, versatile and durable, what hurt Atchison is likely the same factor which cost him a spot on the Opening Day roster last spring: having remaining options, allowing the Sox to summon him from -- and return him to -- Pawtucket without risk of exposing him to waivers.
Of the four remaining pitchers, the one most likely to be with the major league team on April 1 is Reyes. Reyes had an out in his contract which would have allowed him to leave camp in pursuit of another major league job if he was not added to the Sox' 40-man roster.
The Red Sox asked Reyes to push back his deadline until Saturday, giving them an additional day to consider their various choices and scenarios. It seems unlikely that Reyes will not be part of their plans, especially after his agent, Oscar Suarez, told the Providence Journal that his expectation is that Reyes will make the team.
That leaves one final spot, to be decided among Okjaima, Aceves and Albers.
Aceves has pitched well enough to warrant a spot in the bullpen, but the club might prefer him to go to Pawtucket to get stretched out as a starter, where he could have more value, given the team's lack of rotation depth.
Okajima's presence, in tandem with Reyes, would give the Red Sox two lefty relievers, providing Francona with some late-inning flexibility.
Now in his fourth year with the Red Sox, Okajima's salary is guaranteed and he has remaining options, meaning he could be sent to Pawtucket. Okajima's 2010 was his worst since joining the Red Sox, but he pitched better in September, earning a new deal.
Finally, there is Albers, who has a major league contract, but no remaining options. Albers has pitched well in Grapefruit League actions, but the Sox would be effectively locked into keeping him, since he could be claimed off waivers if the Sox tried to send him to Triple A.
As many as five teams have called to inquire about Albers, but have been unwilling to offer much of value in return.