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Is there hope for the Red Sox bullpen without a deal?

07.30.10 at 1:54 pm ET
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The Red Sox are working feverishly to add to their bullpen. But what if the right deal isn’€™t there to be made? Can the Sox bullpen avoid being a potential fatal liability?

The team’€™s bullpen ‘€“ which sports a 4.42 ERA, is tied for second in the AL with 14 blown saves, has allowed the most homers (43) in the AL and generally lacks a reliable middle reliever in front of closer Jonathan Papelbon and setup man Daniel Bard.

There is a searching period at work for the Sox bullpen, something that became apparent when Scott Atchison was brought in to pitch in the eighth inning of Monday’€™s game, when Bard was unavailable. The Sox are trying to avoid putting Bard’€™s shoulder in a shredder. At the same time, it would be difficult for the club to suggest that it has confidence in the personnel heading to the mound on nights when he is unavailable.

All of that raises the question: can the bullpen be anything other than a weakness in the absence of change?

‘€œ[The bullpen] is a strength if guys perform to their track records. That’€™s pretty obvious,’€ said pitching coach John Farrell. ‘€œThat’€™s not always been the case.’€

Farrell suggested that the bullpen inconsistencies have been in no small part the byproduct of a loss of confidence by the individual pitchers in their stuff. There has been a tendency of pitchers to overthrow, resulting in walks that have made the base hits all the more costly.

That has led to usage changes across the Sox’€™ middle relief spectrum. Excluding Tim Wakefield (who has yet to appear in a game out of the Boston bullpen since Josh Beckett‘€™s return) and minor leaguers Michael Bowden and Felix Doubront (whose potential contributions to the major league bullpen cannot be predicted with any great precision), here is a look at the current Sox relief options behind Bard and Papelbon:

MANNY DELCARMEN

The stuff is still there, which makes it all the more puzzling to the Sox why Manny Delcarmen has had such an enigmatic season. He had a sub-2.00 ERA through the first two months of the season, saw his performance tank (14.73 ERA) over the next four weeks while dealing with back and forearm injuries, the latter of which forced him to the DL.

Once activated, he looked strong initially, retiring seven straight batters over two appearances. But in three subsequent appearances, he’€™s retired just four of the 12 batters he’€™s faced, allowing three runs on three hits and three walks while hitting a batter.

The issue doesn’€™t appear to be health so much as it is confidence, according to Farrell.

‘€œWith Manny, there are times when he’€™s been very good when he’€™s trusted his ability. There have been times, even by his own admission, a lack of trust that causes him to rush and causes his arm to be late,’€ said Farrell. ‘€œThat’€™s the frustrating thing. When you look up and he’€™s throwing 92-95, if you locate that fastball with that power, that’€™s a pretty unique combination and one that permitted him to be successful for a long time. That’€™s what we’€™re working to get back to.’€

Delcarmen’€™s walks totals have been worrisome to the Sox this year, as he’€™s issued 23 free passes (against 25 strikeouts) in 37 innings. Even so, he has at least shown the ability to be part of the solution for the Sox bullpen. If he can execute, then he can contribute.

HIDEKI OKAJIMA

It’€™s been ugly for Okajima, who has a 5.81 ERA, and has been shelled by opposing batters to the tune of a .351 average, .409 OBP and .947 OPS. Left-handed and right-handed hitters have been pounding him with equal enthusiasm.

Farrell believes that the left-hander’€™s problems stem from a failure to use his fastball in.

‘€œBefore, when he’€™s been able to throw his fastball in to lefties and righties to keep them honest, it speeds up their bats a little bit to make the split a little more effective,’€ he said. ‘€œThat hasn’€™t been the case as frequently.

‘€œThe one thing we continue to look at is the usage of his stuff,’€ Farrell added. ‘€œWhat we try to do is not take his stuff and become traditional in approach ‘€“ the split late in the count, working away with fastballs. The ability to work in, both off the plate and for strikes, is key for him. Those are the areas we continue to try to establish.’€

After allowing five hits and two runs while absorbing the loss on Sunday in Seattle, Okajima was not used in the three-game series against the Angels, despite the fact that Daniel Bard wasn’€™t available for two of the contests (and Jonathan Papelbon was also unavailable for one).

Perhaps he is dealing with lingering back discomfort; perhaps not. Regardless, given his performance and health struggles this year, the Sox have been without a reliable left-handed option. That explains in no small measure the team’€™s interest in Scott Downs and Craig Breslow.

If the team does not acquire a lefty, it will be interesting to see whether a roster move is made to give southpaw Dustin Richardson another shot. While Okajima likely can’t continue to struggle to this extreme, his career trend lines are ominous, as his ERA, hits per inning and homers per inning have gone up in each of his big league seasons.

SCOTT ATCHISON

Atchison’€™s role has grown to unexpected prominence, in no small part because over the last month, he has been the team’€™s most reliable reliever outside of Bard and Papelbon. In contrast to the command difficulties of other members of the bullpen, Atchison is appreciatively described by the Sox as a strike thrower, as evidenced by his 12 walks in 36 innings this year.

He recently had a stretch of 9 1/3 innings without an earned run, which resulted in him being the pitcher called upon to handle the eighth inning in Anaheim on Monday (when Bard was unavailable). However, he ended up yielding a two-run homer in that outing to Hideki Matsui that served as a reminder that lefties (.294 average, .853 OPS) have done a number on him.

Righties, in contrast, are hitting just .169 with a .553 OPS against the 34-year-old. Atchison has also generated a decent number of strikeouts, averaging 6.7 per nine innings. While his stuff is not overpowering, he is likely to remain a useful middle innings option for the Sox.

RAMON RAMIREZ

There is a reason why other teams have expressed some interest in Ramirez as a trade deadline acquisition. That much has been evident in his last three appearances, when Ramirez has retired all seven batters he’€™s faced, striking out four of them. Since May 27, in fact, he’€™s been quite good, forging a 3.33 ERA and holding opponents to a .205 average and .601 OPS.

To date, Ramirez has been used primarily in games when the Sox are trailing (22 of 43 appearances) or when the Sox have held a lead of four or more runs (14 of 43 appearances). He has appeared in the eighth inning or later of a game when the Sox were tied or had a lead of three or fewer runs on just six occasions this year.

There is a chance that the Sox end up dealing Ramirez between now and Saturday. Of course, there is also a chance that the Sox end up pursuing someone just like him: a potential buy-low acquisition whose stuff can play in the middle innings.

Read More: Hideki Okajima, manny delcarmen, ramon ramirez, scott atchison
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