Commentary

Red Sox can't be done yet

A stacked lineup won't mean much if Boston's bullpen isn't fixed

Updated: December 14, 2010, 1:19 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- A cautionary note in the midst of all the giddiness:

The offense was not the problem. The Red Sox finished second in the American League in runs scored in 2010, second in slugging percentage, first in .OPS (on-base plus slugging).

Except in another season, 2006, when the club was ravaged by injuries, it never has lacked for big bats in the reign of John W. Henry I (now that he owns Liverpool, isn't it only a matter of time before he becomes "Sir John"?). That was the only time in the nine years of the Henry era that the Sox have finished lower than third in runs scored. They've finished first three times, second three times, and third twice. In '06, they were sixth.

Look at it this way: If you broke this down like a straight trade, Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez plus three highly regarded minor leaguers, including No. 1 pitching prospect Casey Kelly, plus a couple of hundred million, for Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, would the new acquisitions have received such unanimous acclaim?

Or might someone have said, "Um, let's keep Beltre and Martinez, hang onto the kids, save a couple of hundred million, and put some of that cash into the bullpen. The offense is just fine as it is, and will be even better when everybody is healthy, and Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia are all around for a full season.''

Last season, in that favorite sabermetric stat, Wins Above Replacement, Crawford (6.9) and Gonzalez (5.3) combined for 12.2 wins. Beltre (7.1) and Martinez (4) combined for 11.1.

Admittedly, that's a pretty simplistic analysis, and a compelling argument can be made that the Sox needed a new left-fielder much more than they needed to keep their below-average catcher, that Gonzalez gives them the slugging successor to David Ortiz they so coveted, and Youkilis' ability to move effortlessly to third makes it painless to lose Beltre.

Plus, Crawford and Gonzalez are both younger, and will be major contributors long after Martinez and Beltre begin to fade.

You won't get any disagreement on any of that here.

But will that mean the Red Sox succeed with Crawford and Gonzalez in 2011 where they failed with Beltre and Martinez in 2010? Not unless the Sox do something about their bullpen, which they have insisted all offseason is a priority.

Here are the top four American League teams in relief ERA in 2010:

1. Tampa Bay, 3.33
2. Texas , 3.38
3. New York Yankees, 3.47
4. Minnesota, 3.49

What they have in common: They were the four teams that qualified for the postseason in 2010.

The Sox finished 12th out of 14 AL teams in relief ERA, at 4.24. Only the Orioles and Royals had higher relief ERAs. The Sox were next-to-last in blown saves, with 22. They also were 13th in save percentage, at 67 percent.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Papelbon
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonThe Sox bullpen, anchored by Jonathan Papelbon, finished 12th out of 14 AL teams in relief ERA at 4.24, and next-to-last in blown saves, with 22.

In 2007, when they won the World Series, they ranked first in bullpen ERA, at 3.10. In 2004, when they won the World Series, they ranked fourth (3.92).

It was an English playwright, not a dugout philosopher, who pronounced the pen mightier than the sword, but if you can tolerate "sword" as metaphor for the instrument wielded in baseball, there's something to be said for its place in this discussion.

"I think the bullpen is important,'' Red Sox manager Terry Francona said last week at the winter meetings. "We probably lost some games there last year that hurt us. That's a hard way to lose games, especially when you want to be a good team.

"When you lose games late, you feel like the next day you have to come back and win another one just to catch up," he said. "It's a tough way to play.''

The Red Sox, when they were taking hits for allowing Martinez to leave, cautioned folks to wait until they'd finished their offseason business before making any judgments. In the coming days, the Sox may well add pieces like Brian Fuentes and Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain to their bullpen (and their search does not begin and end with those names), and the team's most obvious weakness will cease to be one, at least on paper.

But clearly, there is work to be done. Bringing Crawford and Gonzalez on board has added a great surge of excitement. But it's the nitty-gritty of the pen that will decide who plays in October.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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