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Changeups in the Red Sox bullpen: 2003-2009

07.07.10 at 12:01 pm ET
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Hideki Okajima is having his worst season with the Red Sox, contributing to a Sox bullpen that ranks among the worst in the AL.

It is no great revelation to suggest that the Red Sox bullpen is thin.

Sox starters rank fourth in the majors with 524 1/3 innings this year, and sixth in the majors with an average of just under 6 1/3 innings per start. It’s not hard to figure out why. The rotation has a 4.07 ERA, fifth best in the American League. The bullpen now features a 4.83 ERA, second worst in the AL. The Sox also have 13 blown saves, most in the AL, and a 64 percent save percentage that ranks 11th among the 14 teams in the American League.

In his return on Tuesday, Hideki Okajima allowed a homer — to left-hander Carl Crawford, no less — to push his ERA up to 6.00. Ramon Ramirez (4.81 ERA) has been unreliable. Manny Delcarmen saw his ERA more than double to 4.59 as a result of a three-outing stretch of ineffectiveness that forced him to the DL to rest his elbow.

In short, it is no secret that the Sox will need to improve their bullpen, and that the team is likely to seek a change to its current crew. But the question remains: what kind of change?

The Sox gave an indication of the initial direction of their attempt to restore relief to their pitching staff with the news that Michael Bowden, who has been dominant as a Triple-A starter for the past five weeks, will be moved to the PawSox bullpen. And if the Sox seek to address a struggling bullpen with internal solutions such as Bowden, it would not be that out of character for the club under the stewardship of GM Theo Epstein.

While the Sox have at times been aggressive in trading for bullpen reinforcements, there have been years when they did not do so, even with deeply flawed bullpens. In 2005, for instance, the Sox featured a horrific bullpen. Closer Keith Foulke required surgery in July, and setup men like Alan Embree and Matt Mantei endured horrible seasons.

The Sox looked into acquiring an impact arm at the trade deadline, but decided not to do anything when they were presented with trade proposals such as an exchange of Kevin Youkilis for Twins setup man J.C. Romero. Yet the team still made one of its most significant bullpen moves under Epstein, making the decision to use Jonathan Papelbon (a starter to that point in his career) as a reliever down the stretch. Now, it appears that the Sox want to see if Bowden can permit them a similar solution this year.

Here’s a look at the year-by-year history of Red Sox in-season bullpen moves during Epstein’s tenure:

2003: Dissolving the committee

Need: Extreme

Deed: In three separate deals, Sox acquire Byung-Hyun Kim (May 29), Scott Sauerbeck (July 22) and Scott Williamson (July 30)

Cost: Third baseman Shea Hillenbrand, reliever Brandon Lyon*, minor league pitchers Anastacio Martinez*, Phil Dumatrait and Tyler Pelland

* – Lyon and Martinez were dealt back to the Sox when the Pittsburgh trade turned messy when the Pirates suggested that Lyon was damaged goods

The Red Sox entered the season with a bold plan to proceed in the absence of a traditional closer, instead believing that it would be more effective to proceed on a situational basis. From the time that the Sox blew a lead on Opening Day against the Rays, the plan flopped. That prompted the Sox to move aggressively to address their weakness.

They proved willing to deal both major league talent (Shea Hillenbrand, who had been rendered unnecessary by the emergence of Bill Mueller and David Ortiz, and Brandon Lyon) and both upper-level and lower-level minor leaguers (Anastacio Martinez, Phil Dumatrait and Tyler Pelland) to enact a substantial overhaul of their bullpen in the middle of the season, acquiring Byung-Hyun Kim, Scott Williamson and left-hander Scott Sauerbeck.

Kim, though much-maligned, was largely effective during the regular season, producing an 8-5 record, 3.18 ERA and converting 16 of 19 save opportunities. But he ended up becoming a non-factor in the postseason. Williamson followed the opposite path, getting lit up for a 6.20 ERA in the regular season but then becoming a key to the Sox bullpen in the playoffs, when he allowed one run in eight innings and emerged as the Sox closer. Sauerbeck was terrible in the regular season (6.48 ERA) and pitched in just one postseason game.

Longer-term, Kim and Williamson suffered through injuries that relegated them to the margins in 2004, and Sauerbeck (who later said that he was injured during his Red Sox tenure) pitched so poorly that his option was declined.

2004: Buying low

Need: Modest

Deed: Signed right-hander Curtis Leskanic (June 22), traded for right-hander Terry Adams (July 24), selected left-hander Mike Myers off waivers (Aug. 6)

Cost: The Sox gave up John Hattig to the Blue Jays in the Adams deal

The Sox had made their big bullpen move in the offseason, signing closer Keith Foulke. With setup men Alan Embree and Mike Timlin, the Sox had three solid options (four when Williamson was able to pitch). But while Adams was a non-factor, both Myers and Leskanic became useful in providing depth.

Leskanic is best remembered for two noteworthy games against the Yankees. Foremost, he was the winning pitcher in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS (the last game he ever threw of his career). He was also the pitcher of record for the Sox on July 1, 2004, the game best remembered for Derek Jeter‘s dive into the stands and Nomar Garciaparra‘s downspirited day on the bench. In the July 1 contest, Leskanic hit Gary Sheffield with a pitch; the outfielder later explained that he did not charge the mound because Leskanic’s brother had done the contract work on his pool.

Myers, meanwhile, appeared in five postseason games for the Sox, and was a useful contributor for the club in 2004 and 2005.

2005: Standing pat (and keeping Youkilis)

Need: Extreme

Deed: Traded for right-hander Chad Bradford and left-hander Mike Reminger; claimed Chad Harville off waivers.

Cost: Disgruntled outfielder Jay Payton and non-prospect Olivio Astacio

This was the season when the Sox made the commitment not to waste prospects on middle relief, even though the team’s bullpen was a glaring deficiency. The team elected to keep Youkilis and place its bet on the future, rather than going after a setup man for closers Curt Schilling and Timlin. The team likely would have kept Payton but for his public scene in the Sox dugout during a game in Baltimore; once that happened, however, the team designated him for assignment and made the move for Bradford, who was a serviceable if relatively unimportant right-on-right option towards the end of the season. Otherwise, the Sox tried a few mid-year castoffs from other clubs, none of whom did anything particularly noteworthy.

The most important development for the bullpen was Papelbon’s emergence as a setup man, something that convinced Francona that, when Foulke faltered out of the gate the following season, he had a new closer.

2006: Sticking with the kids (and the growing pains)

Need: Significant

Deed: Traded for left-hander Javier Lopez (June 15), right-hander Bryan Corey (July 31)

Cost: Major-league right-hander David Riske, minor leaguer Luis Mendoza

The 2006 season was simply a mess in the second-half, as injuries decimated the Sox. Yet the Sox were still on pace for 99 wins at the All-Star break, at a time when the team was trying to have key bullpen innings handled by Papelbon and fellow rookies Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen. By the trading deadline, the Sox recognized that the young corps (aside from Papelbon) might not be ready to shoulder the load.

At the trading deadline, the team made a run at several pitchers, including Astros reliever Brad Lidge (whom they envisioned as a setup man for Papelbon). But that deal didn’t come together, and the Sox once again wanted to keep their top prospects intact, so they essentially stood pat, aside from the relatively minor deals for Lopez and Mendoza.

Hansen ended up being sent back to the minors in late-August, and Delcarmen took his lumps down the stretch. Papelbon, meanwhile, injured his shoulder at the beginning of September.

2007: Big deal turns into big disappointment

Need: Limited

Deed: Traded for Eric Gagne (July 31)

Cost: Major-league pitcher Kason Gabbard, Triple-A outfielder David Murphy and Rookie League outfielder Engel Beltre

Gagne? C’était une catastrophe en soi!

The Sox were happy to sell high on Gabbard, who had parlayed a brief run of fine starts with the Sox into the most value he would ever have in his career. Murphy was expendable given the presence of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick in the system. But Beltre…

This marked the only time that the Sox swallowed hard and gave up a high-ceiling prospect in a deal for a reliever under Epstein. The club had signed potential five-tool talent Beltre out of the Dominican in 2006, and he remains a potential impact prospect who is already in Double-A as a 20-year-old.

The Sox rationalized dealing for Gagne by noting that they would get two compensatory draft picks when he left in free agency. Instead, he performed so poorly that he a) made himself almost irrelevant for the postseason and b) fell from Type A to Type B free-agent status, meaning that the Sox got only one compensation draft pick for him. (That said, the pick had value: the Sox selected right-hander Bryan Price, who was used as one of the chips in the Victor Martinez deal.)

Gagne offered neither the value that the Sox sought from him on the mound or off of it.When Epstein suggested last week that “you trade for two or three months of a reliever, doesn’t matter if it’s a good one or a great one, you still don’t know what you’re going to get,” Gagne seemed the relevant subtext.

2008: The answers come from within

Need: Modest

Deed: No trades (aside from a move to ship reliever Craig Hansen to the Pirates in the Manny Ramirez-Jason Bay deal on Aug. 31)

Cost: None

The Red Sox had one of their more complete bullpens in 2008, with Papelbon, Okajima, Delcarmen and Lopez all performing well. Yet the team was still exploring additions that year. For instance, the Sox contacted the Braves about adding left-hander Will Ohman before walking away when Atlanta asked for Daniel Bard in return.

But the real change in the bullpen occurred, as in 2005, with a player from the system. Justin Masterson was moved from the rotation to the bullpen after the All-Star break, and he gave the Sox a formidable presence, ultimately assuming the most important innings not given to Papelbon in the postseason.

2009: An August addition

Need: Modest

Deed: Traded for Mets reliever Billy Wagner (Aug. 25)

Cost: Minor leaguers Chris Carter and Eddie Lora

The emergence of Daniel Bard in 2009 permitted the Sox to avoid a desperate move to shore up the bullpen. At the trade deadline, at least, it appeared that the Sox had a strong group, with Bard joining Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen (both of whom had been largely excellent to that point in the season), Takashi Saito and Hideki Okajima to give the Sox a number of options in front of Jonathan Papelbon.

That changed in August. Okajima was fatiguing, while Delcarmen’s performance was taking a nosedive due to an injury that he did not disclose to the club. As a result, while the Sox didn’t make a move at the July 31 deadline for non-waiver trades, they did move to reinforce their relief corps in August.

A perfect storm of events gave the Sox one of the most dominant relievers of all time for virtually no prospect cost. The Mets were in the midst of a miserable stretch that had them miles from contention and looking to move the salary of Billy Wagner, who between his remaining 2009 salary and the buyout of his 2010 option was owed more than $3 million. Wagner was coming back from injury, and so the Mets had little hope of receiving a meaningful prospect in return for a potentially difference-making bullpen option.

And so, the Sox acquired Wagner for minor leaguers Chris Carter and Eddie Lora, neither of whom was viewed as having a chance to be a meaningful contributor on the Sox major league roster. Wagner, meanwhile, had a 1.98 ERA for the Sox down the stretch, and the Type A free agent also won the Sox a pair of draft picks when he departed, which the Sox parlayed into first-rounder Kolbrin Vitek and sandwich-round selection Bryce Brentz.

SUMMARY

Under Epstein, the Sox have made major deals to address the bullpen in 2003, 2007 and 2009. However, the only year in which the Sox gave up a high-ceiling prospect for a reliever was in 2007, in the Gagne deal.

Each of the deals made by the Sox to address their bullpens was set up, at the time, to impact the club beyond the immediate season. When the Sox traded for Kim, Sauerbeck and Williamson in 2003, each player could be retained by the team beyond that season. (The Sox declined to exercise Sauerbeck’s option.) The moves for Gagne and Wagner were both motivated by both their ability to contribute in 2007 and 2009, respectively, and by the possibility of getting draft-pick compensation for both.

Yet it is worth noting that in four seasons under Epstein (2004, 2005, 2006, 2008), the Sox did not make a significant deal for a pitcher. In the first of those campaigns, the Sox improved their bullpen with scrap heap acquisitions. In 2005, 2006 and 2008, the team tethered its bullpen fortunes to the performance of its own prospects. In 2005 and 2008, at least, the Sox declined to address their bullpen because they did not deem it worthwhile to part with a valuable prospect in exchange for a reliever.

Now, while there is clearly a need for the Sox to improve their bullpen this season, it remains to be seen how the team will achieve it. Given the flexibility shown by the Sox in the past, the only certainty is that the team will explore all available options for improving. But a significant trade is anything but a given.

Maryalice Gill contributed to this report.

Read More: billy wagner, bullpen, byung-hyun kim, chad bradford Print  |  Email  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
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