By Sean McAdam
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- From the beginning of spring training, the lone bit of Red Sox roster competition has centered on the final two spots in the bullpen, and with less than two weeks left in the Grapefruit League schedule those spots are no closer to being decided.
About eight pitchers are battling for those spots: lefties Dennys Reyes, Randy Williams, Rich Hill, Andrew Miller and Hideki Okajima, and right-handers Matt Albers, Alfredo Aceves and Scott Atchison.
"Fortunately, everybody's done well," said Terry Francona. "It's pretty exciting. It's going to be difficult because there are going to be a couple of guys who don't make this team who deserve to. If you go straight on spring performance, there are going to be guys who don't make the team who should -- there's no getting around it.''
Francona said past performance will be a factor in the decision-making.
"You certainly want to watch how guys are throwing," said Francona. "That's important. But if you go on five or six or seven spring-training innings, I think you're setting yourself up for a mistake.''
With the club's starters being stretched out -- Jon Lester tossed 4 23 innings Wednesday -- innings are going to be at a premium for the many relievers in the mix. Some will have to get their work in, and be evaluated in minor-league games.
Albers is the one veteran in the group out of options and one talent evaluator predicted that the Sox would likely deal Albers before the end of the month rather than risk exposing him on waivers and losing for nothing.
"He's going to pitch in the big leagues somewhere," said the evaluator. "If it's not in Boston, might as well get something for him."
Atchison is thought to have something of an advantage among the right-handers because he pitched with the Sox most of last season and is capable of giving the team multiple innings in middle relief.
Reyes, meanwhile, has some leverage in that his contract has a March 26 out clause if he isn't yet on the roster.
"Some guys have different outs in their contracts,'' agreed Francona, "and we'll have to address that when the times comes. But if it's a problem (trying to select the bullpen), it's a nice one. I'd much rather have that than have guys eliminate themselves."