Regardless of past success, trying to forecast the performance of any bullpen from one season to the next is difficult. Blame it on the vagaries and fickle nature of the job.
“Health issues, overall workload. People don’t realize it but every time a pitcher stops throwing — reliever, starter, even coaches, players — there’s always a question: I wonder if I will throw as hard as I did last year,” said Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves. “There’s always how a bullpen works and there’s also the situation of the game, the days that you have that reliever available for that specific spot, the bounces of the game. But health issues, I think, is the biggest thing.”
Last year, the Red Sox’ two major health issues in their bullpen could have sunk their season. Instead, both inadvertently helped. When closers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were hit with season-ending injuries, Koji Uehara stepped in — as the fourth option after Junichi Tazawa — and was nearly lights out.
Heading into the season, the one definite role the Sox have settled in the bullpen is Uehara. Barring anything unforeseen, the other spots will go to righthanders Tazawa, Edward Mujica, and Burke Badenhop, and lefties Andrew Miller and Chris Capuano, leaving one open spot.
That would normally go to lefthander Craig Breslow, who has yet to pitch in a game this spring (he’s scheduled for a minor league appearance Monday) and likely will start the season on the disabled list.
“Koji closing and then on the back end where there’s Edward Mujica and Taz,” manager John Farrell said. “Obviously, Miller’s got the ability to come inside of an inning and get a strikeout.
“We have again matchup ability, multiple-inning ability. I think Chris Capuano is going to give us a lot of flexibility and versatility out there with his style and his accomplished track record. And then you got a ground-ball guy in Badenhop. It’s clearly a contrast we didn’t have last year in the middle part of a game.”
If Breslow is unavailable, righthanders Brandon Workman and Francisco Cordero, and lefthanders Drake Britton and Tommy Layne are candidates to take that spot. Workman and Britton are on the 40-man roster. A roster spot would have to be opened for non-roster invitees Cordero or Layne.
“We wouldn’t look at just a left-for-left situation,” Farrell said about finding a pitcher to take Breslow’s place. “I think earlier in the year multiple innings are going to be key. Roster is another situation that we’ve got to consider, [Layne] being a non-roster player at this point. But he’s done nothing short of impressing [in] the way he’s thrown a baseball.”
Mujica and Tazawa could serve similar functions, setting up for Uehara.
“I think they’re going to have similar roles, but because you’ve got multiple guys with similar talents we can keep guys a little more fresh early on where you can rotate guys through,” Farrell said. “We know what the bullpen’s coming off of, high number of innings last year. We’d like to think we can alternate game to game rather than going back to back early in the year and keep guys more fresh the deeper we go into the season.”
Although Tazawa and Uehara have appeared in just four spring games, both have said they feel good. Their most recent work was Saturday in minor league games and Thursday throwing batting practice. The righthanders are next scheduled to pitch Tuesday at the Rays.
Asked what he would like to accomplish during the rest of spring training, Uehara replied, through his translator: “A haircut.”
He then turned serious.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years,” he said. “It’s just being healthy when Opening Day comes.
“I have no complaints [with the pitching schedule]. It’s something that the team feels is best for me, and I feel perfectly fine with that.”
It’s a schedule Breslow would have been on, too, if fully healthy, Nieves said.
“They’re going to get enough innings during the course of the season,” Nieves said. “If we miss one or two innings down here, it doesn’t matter. They’re going to hopefully be pitching a lot, and a long time.”
Nieves and Farrell have in mind what the specific bullpen roles will be.
“I think it’s pretty much figured out,” Nieves said. “But they’re going to be told. There will be times when Tazawa’s not available Mujica moves up, and Badenhop becomes a Mujica. It all depends on who’s available that day and to what capacity the game dictates them to pitch.”
“If you were to sit here today and prioritize who would come in in the middle of an inning to get a strikeout, Miller and Tazawa are probably two that we would go to first,” Farrell said. “Depending righthanded, lefthanded, or the time of the game.”
A foot injury ended Miller’s 2013 season July 6. If there is a silver lining to that, it could be that he is one of the few relievers who didn’t set or approach career highs in appearances or innings.
“I feel good physically, as good as I can, which is all you can ask for in spring training,” Miller said. “Hopefully, my arm’s a little fresher than it normally would be.”
Miller likely will be entering games in specific situations. On Wednesday, he entered with two outs in the fifth inning and threw three pitches to get a strikeout. On Friday in Clearwater against the Phillies, he faced four batters, recording two outs with a hit and walk.
“It’s probably going to be in small [outings],” Nieves said of Miller’s usage. “Extending him [Friday] was a little tough, coming in with adrenaline and then boom. So we’re trying to look for spots for him to get to the spot where he was last year; before he got hurt he was pitching well.”
Now, they just have to determine who will get the final spot.