The Red Sox don’t have the horses in the bullpen and everybody knows it. The only question now is how long the Red Sox can wait to address that shortage.
And whether they can really address it at all.
The Red Sox lost only one game in dropping their 2012 season opener to the Detroit Tigers on Thursday, so let’s not put as much emphasis on the single defeat as we do the makeup of the Boston bullpen. Operating without Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard or Andrew Bailey, Red Sox relievers allowed four hits and two earned runs in 1.1 innings while walking one batter and hitting another in a 3-2 defeat to the Detroit Tigers. Minus the six pitches thrown by lefthander Franklin Morales, the trio of Vicente Padilla, Mark Melancon and Alfredo Aceves needed just two-thirds of an inning to do more damage than a herd of locusts.
Already, the relievers are eating away at the confidence and morale of this team.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington and skipper Bobby Valentine both are new to their respective jobs this spring, but neither is a fool. They know what they have here. Among the group of Aceves, Padilla, Melancon and Morales, not a single one has a real proven track record of late-inning success in the major leagues. The subsequent mismatch Boston faces in the late innings is beyond intimidating, leaving the Sox particularly shorthanded against the better teams in what is now a deep American League.
Think about it. If the Sox and Yankees are close going into the seventh inning, do the Red Sox have relievers who can match zeroes with David Robertson, Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera? Can they do the same with the Angels, Rangers or Rays? On Thursday, the Sox actually got to Detroit closer Jose Valverde for a pair of runs, and even that was not good enough.
The Red Sox can’t match arms in the late innings, folks. At least not with a group like the one they have. Melancon, Aceves, and Padilla might make for a formidable trio in a place like Kansas City or Pittsburgh, but that’s not going to cut it in the American League East.
Go ahead and run down the full list of names in the Boston bullpen. Aceves? He has proven to be the perfect swingman on a championship-caliber team, but really nothing more. (Dare we compare him to Ramiro Mendoza?) Melancon has had one productive year in the major leagues - with a wretched team (the Houston Astros, who took Jed Lowrie for him) that lost 106 games last season in a bad division. Padilla is a problematic 34-year-old journeyman with his fifth team. Morales has walked almost five batters per nine innings for his career.
The rest of the group includes Michael Bowden, Justin Thomas, Matt Albers and Scott Atchison. That ain’t exactly Fingers, Gossage, Eckersley and Sutter.
When you get right down to it, the Sox have two choices here. In the coming weeks and months, they can tread water and try to make trades with teams that have zero chance of contending. Or they can just bite the bullet and move Bard back into the bullpen as soon as someone like Aaron Cook is ready to pitch in major league games.
Regardless, given the shortage of talent in the Boston bullpen, it suddenly seems hard to imagine a scenario in which Bard finishes the season in the Boston rotation. Even if Bailey comes back and pitches effectively late in the year, the Sox will need him and Bard in the late innings if they intend to make a run at the playoffs or, dare we say, a championship.
Lest you think this is all some sort of overreaction, let’s go back to the last time the Red Sox had a bullpen quite like this one: 2003. The Sox opened that season with their ill-fated closer-by-committee experiment, which is the sabermetric way of saying they had no closer at all. Then-manager Grady Little opened the season with a cast of characters that included Mendoza, Mike Timlin, Alan Embree and Chad Fox, among others, but it was Brandon Lyon who was closing games before long.
Know what happened that year? General manager Theo Epstein traded for Byung-Hyun Kim in May. Then he signed Todd Jones as a free agent. Then he traded for Scott Williamson in July in a hilarious reversal of philosophy - the Sox going from a philosophy of having no real closer to having three of them (with at least some success in the role) over the span of two months.
Thanks to an offense that set the major league record for slugging percentage in a single season, the Sox made the playoffs that year. Even then, starter Derek Lowe had to close out Game 5 of the AL Division Series against the Oakland A’s because Little was still searching for answers. (Little ultimately got stability in the AL Championship Series against the Yankees before, well ... let’s stop there.)
After that year, the Sox signed a real closer in Keith Foulke. The next season, they won the World Series.
The moral of the story? There is no replacement for talent, particularly in the late innings. Men like Timlin and Embree were serviceable relievers and legitimate major league talents who helped the Sox, but they had to be in the right roles (just like Melancon and Aceves). The moment the Sox nailed down the back end of the bullpen, their entire relief corps got infinitely better.
So where are the Sox going to get a closer now? Excellent question. Maybe someone will emerge from the minor leagues, as Papelbon did in late 2005. Maybe Cherington can somehow trade for one. Maybe Cherington’s plan from the very beginning was to trade for a starter in June or July, then move Bard to the bullpen to augment a group that could now get Bailey back at roughly the same time.
In the interim, what the Red Sox have out there simply is not good enough.
And their season hangs in the balance.