Five American League Bullpens in Flux

Last Friday, I looked at five National League bullpens that stood out for their uncertainty at this early stage of the seasion. Naturally, it’s time to turn to the junior circuit.

Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox are probably the best of the five teams on this list, but it’s not because they’ve got piles of proven relievers. In fact, this preseason feels eerily similar to the lead-up to the bullpen-by-committee experiment that fell flat in 2003.

However, the Sox brass is being careful to avoid those connotations even while assembling a group of relievers that might not include a dominant closer. The leading candidate for saves appears to be Joel Pineiro, a pitcher who has one save and only 37 relief appearances against nearly 150 starts.

After Pineiro come a whole bunch of guys who might be safe bets for the seventh inning: Julian Tavarez, Mike Timlin, Hideki Okajima, Craig Hansen, Manny Delcarmen, Brendan Donnelly, and J.C. Romero. (There are more, of course, but even in cyberspace, there’s a word limit.) As I wrote elsewhere last week, I have little doubt that there’s a good pen in there somewhere, but it’ll be tough to pick out the right guys out of spring training. In a way, Hansen’s injury troubles could be a blessing in disguise: while he rehabs and works in Triple-A, Boston will have an extra roster spot to try out one of their veteran options.

Chicago White Sox

After Bobby Jenks (hardly the most dominant closer around), the White Sox will rely on Matt Thornton and Mike MacDougal. Both pitched extremely well in Chicago last year, but neither promises the return of the miraculous ’05 bullpen: Thornton managed only one good year before exiting his twenties, and MacDougal has yet to put together back-to-back healthy seasons.

Even if those three guys pitch to their potential and stay off the disabled list, that leaves plenty more question marks for Chicago. As with the Red Sox, there’s tons of potential to draw upon. There must be a good reliever or two lurking amongst Nick Masset, Sean Tracey, David Aardsma, and Andy Sisco, but there’s probably a double-digit ERA or two in there, as well. And since there’s uncertainty in the starting rotation for the first time in the last couple of years, that will make Ozzie Guillen‘s job even harder.

Kansas City Royals

It’s a questionable strategy when a team such as the Red Sox throws a bunch of mud at the wall, hoping to get a bullpen out of it. It’s much more commendable when practiced by the Royals or Marlins; those teams are looking toward 2008 and 2009, and if that means auditioning future set-up men all year long, so be it.

Dayton Moore has put together an interesting group of relievers, but it’s anybody’s guess when and how well each of them will pitch. Octavio Dotel will be the closer (until somebody trades for him in July, anyway). Beyond him, there’s a pile of live arms (Todd Wellemeyer, Joakim Soria), failed starters (Jimmy Gobble, Jorge de la Rosa after he fails again as a starter), and assorted veterans (John Bale, David Riske).

As an analyst, I can appreciate Moore’s strategy. A fantasy baseball player, on the other hand, is going to have a hard time figuring who to place their bets on when Dotel is traded or injured. I just hope it isn’t Ryan Braun, because when the Royals play the Brewers in June, that could get awfully confusing.

Seattle Mariners

The M’s pen is a lot like Chicago’s, only without Matt Thornton. (Oops!) After J.J. Putz, who knows what the Mariners can expect. Seattle’s brain trust is apparently counting on Chris Reitsma to be a set-up man. (In other news, I’m counting on starting a family with Scarlett Johansson someday.)

The upside for the M’s is their large number of 20-something candidates; Jon Huber could emerge as a late-inning force by the end of the year, and Jake Woods can provide any number of services when called upon. Adding to this group’s upside was the acquisition of Arthur Rhodes. I’ve been raving about that deal since before it even happened; getting Rhodes on nothing more than a minor-league contract is very possibly the one good thing Bill Bavasi has ever done for his organization.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

There are the bullpens with a solid closer but plenty of question marks (Royals, White Sox) and teams with no established saves guy but plenty of strong possibilities (Red Sox). Then there are the Devil Rays. If there must be a favorite for saves at this point (and I seriously doubt that’s the case), it’s Dan Miceli. And it gets less certain after that.

Take, for instance, the MLB.com depth chart. It’s not organized by likelihood of making the team (or if it is, the person who put it together did a very poor job), but it’s still telling that the three names right after Miceli are Scott Dohmann, Jon Switzer, and Jeff Ridgway. The Rays have plenty of young arms that might contribute, but more than any other team in baseball, there’s likely to be a season-long shuttle between the bullpens in Tampa and Triple-A.

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