FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Red Sox bullpen had the third-best WAR (5.6) in the majors in 2014, behind Kansas City and the Yankees. The Sox were 12th overall in the big leagues in bullpen ERA (3.33). So when you look at this year's team and its $200 million payroll, why doesn't the bullpen give you a warm and fuzzy feeling?
Offense — check. Rotation — check. Bullpen — eh.
We know why we feel this way. After watching Koji Uehara struggle for more than a month toward the end of last season, it didn't leave us with as much of a slam-dunk feeling about the pen as we've had in the past.
That the Sox gave Uehara a two-year deal is a sign they believe his woes were mechanical, and that he straightened them out in the final three appearances he made.
Uehara couldn't have been that overworked, as his pitch counts were on the low side, skewed a tad because of his rough outings. If Koji is Koji, he should have no problem with the closer role, though he will be 40 this season.
Uehara was 5-2 with a 1.65 ERA in the first half last season, with 18 saves. He was 1-3 with a 4.35 ERA and eight saves in the second half. He had a 5.56 ERA in August and a 6.23 ERA in September, but he had scoreless appearances in four of his last six games.
Statistician Bill Chuck said that from the start of the 2013 season through June 20, 2014, among relievers who appeared in at least 75 games, the lowest batting average against belonged to Uehara, .140 in 105 games.
From June 21 to the end of the 2014 regular season, Uehara appeared in 32 games with a .264 batting average against, good for 135th among relievers who appeared in at least 25 games. During that same period, Andrew Miller appeared in 37 games, and led all relievers with a .114 BAA.
In addition to the Red Sox bullpen's fabulous WAR and decent ERA, the relievers were 24th in saves (understandable for a last-place team), 25th in batting average against (.255, some 12 points higher than the AL average), third in walks per nine innings (good), and 18th in strikeouts per nine (average).
So, all discussion starts with a downward-trending Uehara and the loss of Miller.
The Sox traded for Texas lefty starter Robbie Ross and will convert him to the pen, which is where he was most effective for the Rangers. Boston also signed Texas rehabilitation project Alexi Ogando.
Ross had better splits vs. righties in 2013 in his final year of relief (lefties hit .341 against him) but in 2012 he had held lefties to a .228 average. He will be competing with Craig Breslow and Tommy Layne, all of them not exactly sure things.
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Were those moves impactful enough to augment a starting rotation that will need bullpen innings on a staff that averages 5.93 innings per start, about the AL average?
Junichi Tazawa and Edward Mujica look to be the Sox' top setup men.
Tazawa (1.2 WAR) has made 71 appearances in each of the last two seasons. He seems very durable and effective, so there's no reason that won't continue unless the workload catches up to him.
Mujica (0.4 WAR) shrugged off a poor first half and pitched well in the second half. He offers a different look to the power-oriented Tazawa.
Breslow looked completely spent last season, but so far this spring he has made all of his bullpens count and looks like the Breslow of 2013. But this is pre-spring training.
Layne was effective last season as a situational guy, so we'll see if there's a roster spot for him.
The Red Sox tried to boost the righthanded middle reliever area as well by trading for the Braves' Anthony Varvaro (0.3 WAR), who is capable of high-90s heat. There was some surprise that the Braves gave him up, but his salary is starting to climb and he had mixed success when placed in high-leverage situations. Still, he has that good arm.
Ogando is a complete mystery. He has nasty stuff when he's healthy and on, but he's had elbow and arm woes the last two years. So he's a gamble, but one the Sox thought was worth taking given the possible upside.
Every staff needs a multi-inning reliever, and the Red Sox seem to have one in Brandon Workman, who had an awful 2014 season. If he is as effective as he was a couple of years back, he could be a huge piece of the bullpen similar to Yusmeiro Petit with the Giants.
Matt Barnes is being used as a starter but scouts believe he has a closer's fastball. Heath Hembree, who should be Pawtucket's closer, also could emerge.
Eduardo Rodriguez, who was acquired in the Miller deal with Baltimore, seems to have a bright future as a starter, but if there's a need for a hard-throwing lefty in the pen, it wouldn't be so bad to break him in there. Ditto for Edwin Escobar.
Year-to-year, one is never sure just quite how bullpens are going to perform.
Breslow is expected to return to form, but he doesn't give you the late power innings that Miller did. The Sox decided not to go four years, $36 million for Miller, and we'll see if that hurts them more than the Jon Lester one.
What they need is for someone to emerge that they didn't expect. If non-roster rehab righty Mitchell Boggs, for instance, starts up with his big fastball, as he did with the Cardinals a few years back, that could be huge.
There are still proven relievers on the market. Rafael Soriano and Frankie (K-Rod) Rodriguez are there for the taking.
The Phillies' Jonathan Papelbon (1.7 WAR, 21st overall) has been a successful closer for years, but there have been only a couple of teams interested because of the money, Papelbon's attitude, and having to give up talent.
The Red Sox enter the season without a bullpen as solid as those of the Royals, Yankees, Orioles (even without Miller), Mariners, Marlins, Giants, and Indians.
Their pen could be decent, but it could be troublesome if Uehara breaks down, if the seventh- and eighth inning guys can't do the job, or if their new acquisitions are either injured or can't adapt back to the pen.
Uehara, Tazawa, and Mujica don't exactly instill the same confidence as Kansas City's Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, and Wade Davis, or San Francisco's Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, and Jeremy Affeldt.
Do the Red Sox have an obvious closer if Uehara falters again? Well, they pay Mujica ($4.5 million) to be that. While it didn't work with Tazawa as the closer before they settled on Uehara two years ago, that doesn't mean he couldn't handle it now.
There have been reports that Mujica was being made available in trade, which doesn't bode well for him being a late-inning option.
Suffice to say, the bullpen may not be Boston's strength.
The Sox may have to keep tweaking and adding to make it right, which isn't the easiest thing to do.
The last thing a team wants is a $200 million roster but a 10-cent bullpen.
Boston's bullpen adds up to more than 10 cents, but on a team with a potent offense and a good rotation, the mettle of the bullpen will be a subject of much debate in spring training.