Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington is prepared to go into spring training not knowing for sure who his closer will be. That may sound risky for a team with championship aspirations, but Cherington has faith in the options he will present to manager Bobby Valentine.
In newly acquired Mark Melancon, Cherington has a pitcher he believes can do the job. Or the Sox could scrap the idea of making Daniel Bard a starter and keep him to the bullpen. The idea is to have somebody in place by April, not mid-February when pitchers and catchers report.
“We have in the past done that and there have been other years when we haven’t,’’ Cherington said yesterday. “We’d like to have a defined closer on Opening Day and we believe Melancon is completely capable of doing that.’’
Cherington and Valentine are in the process of selecting a pitching coach and come spring training, that trio will build a bullpen. In Melancon, Bard, and even Bobby Jenks, the Sox have choices.
“Melancon certainly adds an important piece in a guy that has done it very recently and more recently than anyone else on our roster. So we feel pretty good with the way the back of the bullpen is shaping up. But there is certainly time between now and spring training and we’re going to continue to look for ways to make the team better,’’ Cherington said.
According to major league sources, the Sox remain interested in Oakland closer Andrew Bailey. But in Melancon, who was obtained from the Astros Wednesday for oft-injured infielder Jed Lowrie and righthander Kyle Weiland, the Sox may have found their man at a much lower cost.
“We really like his stuff and have liked his stuff back to his college days at Arizona and we feel like the second half of the season, he really developed a better feel for his cutter,’’ Cherington said. “He’s always had a good curveball. He’s a really aggressive pitcher. Tough, confident and we think he has the intangibles to compete in the American League East. Just felt he was a really good upgrade to our bullpen.
“We believe he’s definitely capable of closing and capable of pitching in the ninth inning for us.’’
The Sox have not entered spring training with such uncertainty since 2007, when they hatched a scheme to make Jonathan Papelbon a starter. That ended when Papelbon requested a return to his old job. He held the job for five more years before signing with Philadelphia last month.
Melancon, who turns 27 in March, had 20 saves for the Astros last season and posted a 2.78 earned run average over 74 1/3 innings with 66 strikeouts and only 20 unintentional walks.
Cherington also spoke about signing two veterans, infielder Nick Punto and catcher Kelly Shoppach.
“Nick’s a guy we’ve had interest in in the past and the timing has never quite worked out,’’ Cherington said. “He’s a guy who plays really good defense. Smart baseball player. Puts together a good at-bat. He’s really good in the clubhouse. He’s just a smart, smart baseball player who I think understands his role on a winning team. He certainly showed that this year down the stretch in October with St. Louis.’’
Once Lowrie was traded, the Sox moved quickly to sign Punto. It required a two-year deal worth $3 million. Punto, 34, hit .278 with an .809 OPS for the Cardinals last season.
“He fits well into our team, into our mix in the clubhouse and can do a lot of things for us,’’ Cherington said.
In Shoppach, the Sox addressed what they felt was a weakness last season. Opposing teams were 73 of 85 stealing bases against backup catcher Jason Varitek. Shoppach threw out 18 of 44 runners for the Rays.
Shoppach, 31, has hit lefthanders well in his career, making him a good complement to starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
“We felt like there was a couple of things that were important to us as far as the catching position. One was to continue to find ways to help in the run game and help control the running game, which was an area of concern of ours last year,’’ Cherington said. “Shop’s been able to help pitching staffs control the running game pretty consistently throughout his career.
Having Shoppach means the Sox can have 24-year-old Ryan Lavarnway continue his apprenticeship in the minors.
“We felt like in a perfect world we would solidify the catching position by adding things to that area and not necessarily counting on Lavarnway going into spring training,’’ Cherington said. “That said, we really think highly of Ryan and think he’s going to be a really good player for us in the future.’’
Adding Punto and Shoppach should help improve the tenor in the clubhouse, a key consideration given the team’s collapse.
“We felt that we added players with toughness and guys that get it and know how to win and it’s important,’’ said Cherington, who stressed that he believes in the character of the returning players.
Cherington said he has “incredible respect’’ for Varitek and is maintaining communication with the captain regarding how he might fit in the organization.
“I think our hope is that Tek will always be part of the Red Sox in some way,’’ Cherington said. “As far as what this means immediately, what we want to do is keep talking to Tek and not discuss that in a public forum but keep talking to Tek and [agent] Scott [Boras] and figure out what’s best for the Red Sox, best for him, and we look forward to doing that.’’
The Sox still have holes in their rotation and could use another reliable reliever, along with a righthanded-hitting outfielder. The payroll is edging close to the luxury tax threshold of $178 million, but Cherington said there is room to maneuver.
“There are different ways to fit what you need to do into that budget. In some areas, that means being involved in certain free agents. In some areas, it means being more involved in trades and some areas it means both. This winter, it’s really been both,’’ he said.
“The offseason isn’t over. We have a lot of time between now and spring training and we’re going to continue to look for ways to upgrade the team. Ownership has always made a significant commitment. If baseball operations has an argument for something that’s going to make us better, then we’ve always been given the flexibility to do that and it’s up to us to make those arguments wisely and do things that we think are in the best interest of the team presently and in the future. We’re going to continue to do that.’’