The Red Sox started their offseason roster construction with a bold move Oct. 30, signing aging closer Koji Uehara to a two-year, $18 million deal.
Uehara, who turns 40 three days before Opening Day, allowed 10 runs on 15 hits in his final nine games. But the Red Sox saw that as only a blip in two otherwise stellar seasons.
“He’s been an elite performer out of the bullpen for us for two seasons. A critical part of our bullpen,” general manager Ben Cherington said at the time.
Nearly a month has passed and the Red Sox have yet to address their other bullpen needs. Cherington and his staff have understandably prioritized finding starting pitchers and filling the hole at third base. But in time, the bullpen will require far more work than simply an extension for their righthanded closer.
Outside of Uehara, the only other reliable reliever under contract is righthander Junichi Tazawa, a setup man. He has a 2.62 ERA over the last three seasons with 181 strikeouts and only 32 unintentional walks over 175⅓ innings.
The Sox have righthander Edward Mujica under contract for another season. He appeared in 64 games last season but did his best when the team was out of contention. Mujica’s ERA was 5.45 before the All-Star break and 1.78 after.
The Sox traded overpowering lefthander Andrew Miller to Baltimore in July. They are one of many teams now seeking to sign the free agent, but they could find the price too high. Miller is in a position to command four years and perhaps $32 million.
If not Miller, the Red Sox will need an established lefthander to use with Tazawa in late-inning situations. Craig Breslow, who had the role on occasion, is now a free agent after the Sox declined his option.
Lefthander Tommy Layne pitched exceedingly well in 30 games, all but one coming in August and September when the Red Sox were well out of contention. The 30-year-old could be a find or a product of the low-pressure environment.
The Sox also need to replace the work of free agent righthander Burke Badenhop, who appeared in 70 games and was consistently effective. Badenhop said after the season that he was open to the idea of returning to the Sox.
There’s an assortment of in-house options, including righthanders Heath Hembree and Alex Wilson, as well as lefthander Drake Britton.
Britton had a rough Triple A season, but pitched well in seven games in the majors. Hembree, picked up from the Giants in the Jake Peavy deal, was developed as a closer by San Francisco. Wilson pitched well in his 18 appearances.
The Red Sox also could find relief help from within their surplus of young starters.
There is not room in the rotation for Matt Barnes, Rubby De La Rosa, Edwin Escobar, Anthony Ranaudo, Allen Webster, Brandon Workman, and Steven Wright. Escobar is the lone lefthander of the group.
It is possible — if not probable — that several in that group could get traded. Others could remain as starters, either in the majors or in Triple A.
The idea of taking a young starter and turning him into a late-inning specialist has appeal. The Red Sox did that with Workman in 2013 and he was one of their best relievers in the postseason. Workman was tried as a starter last season and stumbled badly, going 1-9 with a 5.36 ERA in 15 starts.
Workman is a prime candidate to return to the bullpen. The same could be true for Barnes, a minor league starter who was called up in September and pitched five times in relief.
Webster is another intriguing conversion candidate. He has an above-average fastball and changeup but also a 6.22 ERA in 18 major league starts. His stuff — and wandering focus — could be sharper in shorter stints.
Kansas City won the American League pennant and took San Francisco to the seventh game of the World Series with a bullpen that included Wade Davis.
As a starter, Davis was 31-32 with a 4.57 ERA in 88 games over parts of four seasons. But he pitched well in a relief role for the Rays in 2012, then emerged as one of the league’s best relievers for the Royals last season.
Davis had a 1.00 ERA and a 0.85 WHIP over 71 appearances. He did not allow a home run and struck out 109 over 72 innings. His dominance continued through the postseason.
“You try to start for as long as you can. I think that’s common,” Davis said during the World Series. “But sometimes the bullpen is the best fit. It was for me. You need to find that role.”
De La Rosa and Ranaudo, carefully developed as starters last season, could be effective late-inning pitchers for the Red Sox. At shorter stints, they could throw consistently at 97-98 m.p.h.
Cherington said this month the Sox would bring together many relief options and sort it out during spring training.
Given the nature of relievers, a decent bullpen could emerge. But the Sox will need established arms beyond Uehara and Tazawa to give manager John Farrell a core to build around.