Commentary

'Pen moves should give Red Sox relief

Updated: February 22, 2011, 12:49 AM ET
By Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein was quite busy this winter as he added many key components for 2011 and beyond.

Understandably, this past offseason will be best known for the trade to acquire slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and the free-agent signing of superstar outfielder Carl Crawford. Those acquisitions are significant, no question.

But Epstein also had some work to do in the bullpen.

The relief corps struggled in 2010, and after missing the postseason, the Red Sox needed a major upgrade.

Boston's starting rotation has the ability to be one of the best in the game. Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzaka and even Tim Wakefield when needed, can be a formidable group.

And with the work Epstein has done, there shouldn't be a big drop-off when manager Terry Francona has to turn to the 'pen.

With the addition of right-handers Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler, there's been a renewal of confidence within the club's pitching ranks. Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, who claims he's the most motivated he's ever been, is impressed with the way the bullpen sets up and says he's pumped for the upcoming season.

"We have to find our identity and that'll be our key. If we can do that, we can come out of the gates strong," Papelbon said.

Wheeler, a native of Warwick, R.I., who has spent the majority of his 11 big league seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, has shown the ability to pitch well in the AL East. He can handle a variety of roles and one of his strengths is getting outs with runners in scoring position.

He's filled a variety of roles in many bullpens during his career, and sees the current state of Boston's 'pen as a dangerous one for the opposition.

"It has a chance to be awesome. It really does," Wheeler said. "As long as we keep our heads, make our pitches and work every day to be the best, I think that's important. We don't want to get too far ahead and we don't want to look behind.

"We've got some great arms, arms that can go out there and make key pitches. That's what we're looking for. As deep as it is, it's important because that will make us as strong as possible into September and hopefully October."

Jenks could be the most interesting member of the Boston bullpen.

The 29-year-old right-hander has had a similar career path as Papelbon. Jenks is a two-time All-Star and registered 173 saves in six seasons with the Chicago White Sox before signing with Boston as a free agent this winter.

He said he signed with the Red Sox, despite knowing he would not be the closer, because he wanted the opportunity to pitch in Boston, regardless of the role.

"He knew what his role was when he signed here," Francona said. "He's very aware of that and we wouldn't have signed someone and surprised them with a role, it wouldn't work. We were very open when we signed him and it hopefully gives us another guy to compliment Bard."

Because Jenks has the ability to get both righties and lefties out, matchups will not necessarily dictate when he gets the ball.

"When he's throwing the ball well, bring him in and let him pitch," Francona said.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Bard
J. Meric/Getty ImagesDaniel Bard, who was taxed at times last season, says he was as happy as anyone about the acquisitions of Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler.

Jenks has the prototypical closer's mentality and is focused on harnessing those emotions in his new role in Boston.

"It's something that I'll have to deal with at the time," Jenks said. "I can't anticipate what type of emotions I'm going to have at the time, I just need to get myself mentally prepared for any occasion because I don't know if I'm the eighth-inning guy. If I'm the seventh- or sixth-inning guy, whenever they need me to take the ball, I need to be ready."

When Jenks decided to sign with the Red Sox as a free agent last December, Bard was thrilled. The hard-throwing right-hander was forced into some tough situations last season, often coming in with men on base and pitching into a second inning, and his 73 appearances were by far the most he's worked in his professional career. With the additions of Jenks and Wheeler, Bard should be able to be more effective in 2011.

"I don't think there's anyone happier than me about those acquisitions," Bard said. "We have quality arms and proven guys. I've gotten to know them in the last week or two and they seem like great guys, too. We've got a good group, a good dynamic down there. I was definitely happy to hear about those guys when it happened."

There were times when Francona would ask a lot from Bard last season, and the right-hander's pitch count climbed into the 30s some games. He was so efficient early on, the Red Sox leaned heavily on him, but his effectiveness suffered a bit as his innings increased.

While the big three of Bard, Jenks and Papelbon will be counted on in 2011, the Red Sox also should be able to turn to Wheeler. Meanwhile, lefty Hideki Okajima attempts to rebound from a difficult 2010 season. Veteran Tim Wakefield seems to have embraced his new bullpen role, but there will also be times this season when the knuckleballer could find himself back in the rotation.

The rest of the bullpen staff is not etched in stone. There will be some competition this spring, including lefty Felix Doubront and right-hander Alfredo Aceves. Scott Atchison, who performed admirably for the Sox last season, still has an option remaining and will likely be on the shuttle from Triple-A Pawtucket to Boston.

The depth of the bullpen and the success of the starting rotation go hand in hand.

When the starters get into trouble, Boston's bullpen should have the depth and ability to handle the load. If the starters work deep into games, that will save the relievers' arms. It may sound elementary, but Boston lacked that aspect in 2010 and that's one of the main reasons why the Red Sox missed the postseason.

Safe to say, Epstein does not want a repeat performance.

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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