Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara

Breaking Down the Red Sox Bullpen

If you’ve never read my work on any other site, you may be unfamiliar with my strange love of all things related to bullpens. Well, that’s going to change now, and I can’t promise it won’t be annoying. The way I see it, people on certain parts of the internet tend to underrate the performance of a good relief corps. Sure, they’re not going to rank very highly in WARP-like statistics, but think of how many games during the course of the year are decided by a bullpen. They won’t make the difference between a bad team and a good one, but it’s something that can make a fringe contender into a sure-fire playoff team. With all of that being said, let’s take a look at how the Red Sox bullpen has looked so far, and how it may look later in the year.

The Closer

All bullpens start at the back end and work their way forward, and Boston’s is no exception. As has been the case for the last year and a half, Koji Uehara is the ninth-inning man when he’s healthy. Despite some premature worries after a couple of rough outings to start the year, Uehara is still one of the better relievers in the game. It’s true that he suffered from a visible drop in velocity a few weeks ago, but that’s mostly rectified itself now. What’s always made Uehara so great has been his absurd ability to rack up strikeouts while limiting his walks. In one stretch between 2013 and 2014, including the playoffs, he struck out 54 batters between walks. He’s back to that level in the early part of 2015. The 40-year-old has 11 strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings without allowing a single walk. The age means injury and fatigue may be an issue, but as long as he’s able to pitch, the Red Sox will be just fine at the end of games.

The Set-Up Men

The next man down on the totem pole is Junichi Tazawa, who has become a borderline dominant reliever since converting from a starter in 2012. He’s become something of a middle class Uehara in terms of racking up strikeouts and limiting walks. Since becoming a full-time reliever Tazawa has struck out exactly a quarter of the batters he has faced while walking just under five percent. On top of that, he’s been able to hold up despite appearing in 71 games in each of the last two seasons. He’s by no means invincible, though. He’s been very prone to hard contact over his career, allowing about a home run every nine innings and a .308 opponents’ BABIP in that same time frame. Those issues aside, he’s been one of my favorite pitchers to watch over the last few years and gives the Red Sox a consistent threat in the eighth inning, as long as the Blue Jays aren’t the opponent.

This is where things start to get a little shaky. Coming into the season, Edward Mujica was the next man in line. In fact, he started the year as the closer while Uehara worked his way back from injury. There’s no way to sugarcoat it, though: He’s been a train wreck in 2015. He’s getting lit up with hard contact and isn’t striking out any batters to offset that. There’s a chance that he can bounce back like he did last year, but there have been no signs of life from him thus far, and he’s been relegated to medium- and low-leverage situations for the time being. [Editor’s note: WELP]

Taking his spot as the secondary set-up man has been Alexi Ogando. The former Ranger has always had electric stuff, but injury and shuffling back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation made him available for cheap this offseason. Thus far, he’s performed above my expectations. His velocity is as high as it’s been since 2012 and it’s only climbing, averaging above 95 mph over his last couple outings. With that velocity has come a good strikeout rate with surprising control. He’s given up a couple of homers that have hurt his overall numbers, but he’s looked very good so far. Given the team’s wariness towards putting Tazawa in the closer role, Ogando may very well be the one to replace Uehara in case of injury.

The Lefties

This is about as uninspiring of a group as one could imagine, especially after we were spoiled by Andrew Miller the last few years. Alone, Craig Breslow, Tommy Layne and Robbie Ross Jr. can all be effective middle relievers. Needing one of them to step up as the top lefty is asking a lot, though. To his credit, Breslow has looked much better than he did in his disastrous 2014, but he’s allowed runs in three of his last four starts and doesn’t have the stuff to be a true dominant force. Layne continues to be a solid producer against all odds, but he’s a career minor league who carries an underwhelming profile and will likely go downhill at some point. Ross may be the most intriguing part of this trio, which says more about the group than him. He still comes with relative youth and the Red Sox have seemingly given him higher-leverage situations than the other lefties. However, he’s never been able to strike batters out, and hitters have roughed him up so far this year. Given the way the last few weeks have gone, it’s not going to be too high on their list of priorities, but the left-handed reliever situation will need to be addressed at some point.

The Future

Luckily for the Red Sox, the shaky part of their bullpen can be addressed with some young arms. Guys like Heath Hembree, Dalier Hinojosa, Noe Ramirez and Steven Wright can all help out when needed, but they won’t move the needle. Pawtucket’s starters, on the other hand, could. Matt Barnes jumps to mind first, as he worked as a reliever in spring training and has stuff that could play up in that role. With a few more poor outings from Mujica, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see the veteran designated for assignment with Barnes coming up to take his place.

The other three big names in Pawtucket’s rotation intrigue me the most, though. Eduardo Rodriguez, Henry Owens and Brian Johnson all throw from the left side and could be ready for the majors soon. The rotation will obviously be the main concern, but it’s unlikely that three spots open up. If all three are ready to make an impact at the big-league level, it would be great to see at least one shifted into a bullpen role a couple months down the road. Not only would it help Boston’s atrocious lefty reliever situation, it would also give the pitcher a valuable taste of major-league competition.

With the lackluster rotation and sputtering offense, the bullpen is the least of everyone’s concerns right now. Once the offense starts hitting, though, there will be a lot of close, winnable games that will come down to which bullpen performs the best. The eighth and ninth innings look good right now, but the rest of the unit has been very shaky. Luckily, there are some names on the farm that could come up and make a big impact.

Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images

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