Rearranging the Red Sox bullpen

In his first year as Boston Red Sox general manager, Ben Cherington has been busy rebuilding a bullpen that will be Jonathon Papelbon-less for the first time since 2004. Papelbon’s quirky persona and closer-like mound antics made the ace reliever a fan favorite in Boston. His performance didn’t hurt. In six seasons as the full-time closer, Papelbon closed out 219 games for Boston in dominating fashion, posting a 2.33 ERA while striking out 10.7 and walking 2.4 batters per nine.

When Papelbon signed a four-year, $50 million deal early this offseason with the Philadelphia Phillies, the entire baseball community was caught off-guard. Most notably, perhaps, was former Phillies closer Ryan Madson who was apparently close to re-signing in Philadelphia before the news broke. The Red Sox, expected to pursue their long-time closer, were now left to rebuild and reshuffle the pen.

The moves

Philadelphia Phillies sign right-handed pitcher Jon Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million deal (with vesting $13 million option)

While the Red Sox had interest in retaining Papelbon, it was unlikely they would invest $50 million (plus) in a reliever. The Phillies obviously made a big commitment to Papelbon, but they are getting a bona fide closer. If there were any thoughts that Papelbon was in sharp decline in 2009 and 2010 (his peripherals declined in both years, especially 2010), he restored a lot of faith with a return to dominance last season. His strikeout rate rose from the mid-twenties in ’09 and ’10 to 34 percent in 2011. His walk rate dropped to four percent, down from nine percent in the previous two seasons. Papelbon’s FIP and tERA, two peripheral-based ERA estimators, were 1.53 and 1.88 respectively in 2011 (both career bests).

Papelbon returned to form in 2011, but relievers are notoriously hard to project, and he’s now on the wrong side of 30. Further, while you may weight his 2011 performance more heavily, you can’t ignore the recent past in formulating any type of forecast for Papelbon over the next four or five years. For sabermetrically influenced readers, a long-term forecast for a reliever may induce laughter. Many teams have built successful bullpens on a year-by-year basis, avoiding big commitments and minimizing the inherent difficulty in evaluating how relief pitchers are going to perform over the long haul (much less tomorrow). Even the Red Sox, with deep pocketbooks, have been relatively frugal with relievers. Their biggest current contract is Bobby Jenks and his two-year, $12 million deal.

The Phillies will likely have a dominant closer for the short-term and a clear, though not overwhelming, upgrade over Ryan Madson. With Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay anchoring the starting rotation and a championship (though aging) roster in place, one could make an argument that investing in Papelbon is a good move.

Red Sox acquire right-handed pitcher Mark Melancon from Houston Astros for shortstop Jed Lowrie and right-handed pitcher Kyle Weiland

Left in search of bullpen help in the absence of Papelbon, Boston acquired Houston’s 2011 closer Melancon for an enigmatic, injury-prone shortstop and a decent pitching prospect. Drafted in the ninth round of the 2006 amateur draft by the New York Yankees, Tommy John surgery delayed the start of Melancon’s career until 2008, where he quickly climbed the ladder to Triple-A as a reliever. He spent most of 2009 in Triple-A Scranton, striking out 9.2 per nine and posting a 4.91 strike-out-walk ratio. He also pitched sporadically in the majors and held his own in 16 and a third innings, though he struck out only 10 while walking 10.

In 2010, the Yankees dealt Melancon and Jimmy Paredes to the Astros for Lance Berkman. He saw limited action in the Astros’ pen that season, but by 2011 Melancon inherited the closer role. He threw 74 and a third innings for the ‘Stros, anchoring the pen with a 2.78 ERA, eight strikeouts per nine, and 3.1 walks per nine. Melancon also keeps the ball on the infield with a 55.5 percent career groundball rate and only seven home runs allowed in 112 major league innings. Melancon’s newly developed cutter, which he used about 20 percent of the time according to FanGraphs, helped augment his repertoire and his groundball tendencies.

Melancon isn’t arbitration eligible until 2014 and he’s under control through 2016.

The Red Sox paid a price for the services of the right hander in Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland. Boston is relatively deep organizationally at shortstop, with Marco Scutaro doing a serviceable job on the big league club and highly rated prospects Xander Bogaerts and Jose Iglesias in the minors, so they apparently didn’t feel the need to hold onto Lowrie. The 27-year-old shortstop had plenty of time to shine in Boston, but failed to to put it all together, as injuries and/or performance issues derailed promising campaigns. In four seasons with the Red Sox, Lowrie hit .252/.324/.408 in 920 plate appearances with near-average ratings from the defensive metrics.

Lowrie is definitely a nice pickup for Houston, as he’ll take on the everyday shortstop role and have another shot to live up to the potential. Taking a shot at a young, position player for a good, but not great reliever is rarely a bad move for a rebuilding team. Lowrie is arbitration eligible in 2012 and is under Houston’s control through 2014.

Weiland isn’t merely a throw-in; he was recently rated 16th overall in the Red Sox system by John Sickels. The 25-year-old right-handed starter has progressed nicely through the Red Sox minor league system, with a career strikeout rate of 8.5 per nine and a 2.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Weiland will apparently be tried as a starter by Houston, but he may be destined for life in the pen.

Red Sox acquire right-handed pitcher Andrew Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney from Oakland Athletics for outfielder Josh Reddick, right-handed pitcher Raul Alcantara, and first baseman Miles Head

After picking up Melancon, Boston wasn’t finished retooling the bullpen, adding Oakland’s former closer to the mix. The 27-year-old Bailey was drafted by the A’s in the 6th round of the 2006 draft, and started his journey in the minors as a starting pitcher where he posted solid numbers. By 2008, Bailey found himself in the pen and in 2009 he was quickly anointed the A’s closer. He burst on to the scene with a tremendous rookie year, posting a 1.84 ERA and a 3.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 83 and a third innings.

Bailey would remain dominant in 2010 and 2011, but he pitched only 90 innings in both seasons combined. Bailey has been oft-injured since college, where he had Tommy John surgery. He suffered a variety of injuries during his time in the majors and overall concerns about the health of his arm have to be the biggest red flag in this acquisition. When healthy, he’s certainly a more-than-capable closer, a role he’s expected to take on in Boston. Bailey enters his first arbitration eligible season in 2012.

The Red Sox also acquired Sweeney, a versatile fourth-outfielder type who has spent significant time in all three outfield positions. He’s held his own with the bat, too, hitting .283/.342/.378 in four seasons with the A’s. With Reddick heading to Oakland, Ryan Kalish‘s recent surgery, and J.D. Drew‘s contract expiring, the Red Sox have a vacancy in right field. While they are expected to fill that void, Sweeney should get plenty of playing time with Boston.

Reddick displayed signs of brilliance in 2011 and owns an abundance of tools, but ended up posting a solid, yet unspectacular .280/.327/.457 line in 278 plate appearances. He’s a decent defender and he offers more potential than a guy like Sweeney, but there are concerns about his control of the strike zone (in 403 major league PAs, he’s walked just 22 times while whiffing 82 times). He’s under contract through 2016 and if he pans out he’ll be a welcome addition to the rebuilding A’s.

Oakland also acquired a pair of interesting prospects in the deal. First basema Head, 20, hit .299/.372/.515 in 2011 splitting time between Single-A Greenville and High-A Salem. John Sickels rated Head as Boston’s 21st best prospect this offseason). Righty Alcantara, 19, was impressive in Rookie ball. He obviously has a long way to go, but offers plenty of upside (Sickels rated him 23rd).

The reshuffled bullpen

The 2011 Red Sox bullpen was one of the best in baseball, consisting primarily of Papelbon, Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves, Dan Wheeler, Franklin Morales and Scott Atchison. Papelbon is out and with the acquisitions of Melancon and Bailey, the Red Sox are likely to try Daniel Bard in the starting rotation.

The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder was initially groomed to be a starter, but in his first minor league season in 2007 with Single-A Greenville and High-A Lancaster, the first round pick got lit up in the starting rotation. He walked over a batter an inning and struck out only 12.5 percent. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was .6. He jumped to the bullpen in 2008 and provided a 3.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in Single-A and Double-A. Joining the Red Sox bullpen in 2009 and in three seasons of relief since (197 innings), Bard’s struck out 27 percent, walked 10 percent, and allowed just 16 home runs.

Bard certainly has the frame, mechanics and stuff to become a solid major league starter. He can hit 100 mph on the radar gun when he reaches back. But his only performance as a starter in professional baseball was the disastrous 2007 campaign, so converting him to the rotation may take some work. He’s also had some confidence issues throughout his career.

Bailey will take on the closer role and Melancon will take on a late-inning slot.

Though they may also try him as a starter, Aceves was a surprise in the 2011 pen, and he’ll likely play a major role in this season’s iteration. The right hander isn’t overpowering (17 percent strikeout rate), but a five pitch arsenal and a minuscule .235 BABiP have helped make him an effective reliever. He also has a rubber arm and ate up 114 innings last season for Boston. W-L record for a reliever is certainly not a great measure of performance, but Aceves has put up a remarkable 24-3 record in four seasons with the Yankees and Boston.

Right hander Bobby Jenks signed a two-year, $12 million deal with the Red Sox last winter, but never really got going. He pitched only 15.2 innings in 2011 before being shelved with back issues. In September things got far worse for Jenks when he was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism, a blockage of the main artery of the lungs.

Jenks’ status for 2012 is unknown, but if he fully recovers he’s a prime candidate for a bounce-back year. In six seasons with the Chicago White Sox, Jenks closed out 173 games and provided 8.8 fWAR. In his career, he’s struck out almost one batter per inning while walking 3.1 per nine.

Scott Atchison has spent the last two seasons as a serviceable member of the Boston pen. He’s not a big strikeout guy, but he has good control and last season he didn’t allow a home run in 30 and a third innings (his career rate is still 1.1 per nine). He’ll likely eat up a bunch of low-pressure innings in 2012.

Matt Albers, a 28-year-old right hander, showed signs of improvement in 2011, as his strikeout rate jumped from the mid-teens with Baltimore to 23.5 percent. His walk rate, home run rate, and other performance indicators generally stabilized around career norms. While the increase in strikeouts is encouraging, Albers has pitched 382 major league innings to a 1.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’ll probably be used sparingly in high-leverage spots.

Michael Bowden was a starter and a perennial Baseball America top 100 prospect through his minor league career, but he switched to the bullpen in 2010. Last season in Triple-A Pawtucket, Bowden K’ed 28 percent while walking just eight percent, showing aptitude as a reliever. He’s thrown 56 and a third innings in the majors, primarily out of the Red Sox bullpen, and while the results haven’t been too pretty (a 5.75 ERA), his peripherals have been good enough to offer hope.

Left-handed duties will likely go to Morales and Felix Doubront. Morales, acquired from Colorado in May of 2011, posted a career-best 2.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32 and a third innings for Boston. In his career, he’s been far more stingy against lefties, holding them to a .201/.300/.362 line in 236 PAs (righties have hit .272/.371/.418 against him). Slender lefty Felix Doubront started 131 of 134 games in the minors, but so far in 35 and a third major league innings he’s been used primarily in relief, and that’s likely where he’ll find himself in 2012.

Overall, the Boston bullpen probably won’t be quite as good in 2012 as it was last year. The Red Sox have to replace two guys in Papelbon and Bard projected to each post 3.13 ERAs in the pen, via our Hardball Times Forecasts (check them out!). It’d be surprising if Bailey and Melancon are able to fully replace that production, both in terms of inning-by-inning performance and overall durability. Melancon, for instance, is projected to post a 4.12 ERA is 75 innings. The THT Forecasts like Bailey better, projecting a 3.18 ERA out of the right hander. However, because of health concerns and a lack of recent innings, it sees him throwing only 54 innings.

Still, the Red Sox are now able to try Bard in the rotation, and if he develops anywhere near as expected, he’ll be far more valuable there. They also save a small fortune by letting Papelbon walk. Perhaps the biggest lesson learned in bullpen construction over the years is to do it cheaply, rarely committing long-term contracts to relief pitchers. There are so many ways to find good relievers (failed starters and closers on rebuilding teams, for example), it makes little sense for a team, even one as willing to spend as Boston, to commit four years and $50 million (at least) to one guy. Despite the departure of Papelbon, Boston’s bullpen looks like it may still be a strength heading into 2012, and the Red Sox put it together for Lowrie, Reddick, and three middle-tier prospects.

References & Resources
FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, and Cot’s Contracts.

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