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Red Sox options with Hideki Okajima could include minors

02.28.11 at 11:56 am ET

It was not the way that Hideki Okajima wanted to start his exhibition season.

After a 2010 campaign in which he struggled more than his season-ending 4.50 ERA would suggest, the left-hander is competing for one of the final spots in the Red Sox bullpen after having signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal to return to the club that non-tendered him in Dec. And so, without the guarantee of a roster spot, it was no doubt an unfortunate first step for the 35-year-old that he allowed four runs on five hits in his first spring inning of work.

The Sox are mindful of the fact that he was a critical member of their bullpen from 2007-09, and so they note that it is more important for the reliever to work to regain that form than to concentrate on the roster situation.

“We need Oki to be a good pitcher. He’€™s competing with himself,” manager Terry Francona told reporters in Fort Myers. “We’€™ve all seen what he can do when he’€™s right and how he can help that bullpen. That’€™s probably more how I look at it.”

That said, it is worth noting that if Okajima struggles this spring and the Sox wanted to build bullpen depth while giving the left-hander more time to find his rhythm on the mound, his contract status permits the team flexibility to do just that. Okajima has never spent a day in the minors since coming to Boston, and so he has all three of his options remaining. He has four years of service time, and so he cannot refuse an optional assignment should the Red Sox choose to send him to the minors. Nor is there anything in his contract that would prevent the Sox from sending him to the minors.

While Okajima would have to clear major league waivers if the Sox were to option him, that process is considered nothing more than a formality, since teams almost never claim players on that form of waivers.

Among the left-handers in competition for the final bullpen spots — a group that includes Okajima, Felix Doubront, Rich Hill, Dennys Reyes, Andrew Miller and Randy Williams — Okajima and Doubront are the only ones on the Red Sox’ 40-man roster.

Doubront, who has been shut down while building arm strength, will almost surely open the year in Triple-A. That leaves Okajima as the player who would require the least roster shuffling to keep in the majors.

At the same time, because Okajima can be optioned, the Sox could easily send him to the minors if they wanted to avoid losing Reyes, who can opt-out of his minor league deal in the final days of March if he’s not added to the big league roster. The Sox would have to take someone else off the 40-man roster in order to do so, but that would likely not tie the Sox’ hands.

“When [Sox GM Theo Epstein] thinks somebody can help us, he’€™s not afraid to make it work,” said Francona. “At the same time, when we look at building our team, we look at building depth, also. If you lose a guy that’€™s a roster guy — or a guy you could send down — then, 10 days into the season, if somebody gets hurt and you don’€™t have anybody to call up, we certainly keep those things in consideration.”

There is still time for Okajima to demonstrate this spring that he can be a solid bullpen option for the Sox. That said, the pitcher also gives the Sox flexibility, since they are not in a position where they would risk losing him if he was sent to the minors.

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