FORT MYERS, Fla. -- This could not have been an easy day for Hideki Okajima. After four seasons as Boston's No. 1 left-handed option out of the bullpen, the one-time "hero in the shadows" was optioned Monday to Triple-A Pawtucket as the Red Sox made their final roster decisions.
The Red Sox announced that Alfredo Aceves also was optioned to Pawtucket, with Dennys Reyes retained as the bullpen's only left-hander and former Oriole Matt Albers kept as a right-handed long reliever.
The decisions had as much to do with contract manipulation as performance. The Red Sox have options left on Okajima and Aceves. Albers was out of options, while Reyes had an opt-out in his deal that became moot when the Red Sox on Saturday purchased his contract, which will pay him $900,000 at the major league level.
By handling the roster in such a fashion, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein maximized the number of arms in camp that will be available to Boston during the season, including Scott Atchison, who also spent much of last season with Boston but was optioned to Pawtucket over the weekend because the Red Sox held options on him, meaning he did not have to be exposed to waivers.
"A big part of the decision was the preservation of pitching depth," Epstein told reporters Monday. "Pitching attrition is usually the biggest culprit in destroying an otherwise promising season."
Still, while Okajima was always aware this was a possibility, especially given how the Red Sox waited until late in the winter before re-signing him, this had to come as a major blow to the ego of a pitcher who is 35, spent 11 seasons in Japan with the Yomiuri Giants, the Japanese equivalent of the Yankees, and first made it to the Japanese big leagues in 1995.
Financially, the blow is eased by the fact that Okajima will draw his $1.75 million major-league salary in Pawtucket; he was not on a split contract, which means a player is paid at one rate in the majors, another in the minors.
"He's disappointed,'' said Okajima's Boston-based agent, attorney Joseph Rosen. "But Hideki, he's a professional baseball player. He's been with Boston four years now, and done a lot to help this organization. While disappointed, he's accepted it, and while he will start the season in Pawtucket and will make the best of the situation, he wants to get back as soon as he can. I believe he'll make a very big contribution to the Red Sox before the end of the season.''
Manager Terry Francona had spoken a couple of days earlier about not wanting redundancy in the 'pen, but it appears the Sox were unable to avoid that altogether. Albers and Tim Wakefield both project as long men, but the Sox want to keep Wakefield for starting depth; he made 19 starts last season despite beginning the year in the bullpen.
Okajima's ERA has increased each of the past four seasons, from 2.22 in 2007 to 4.50 last year. He had a 6.00 ERA in six spring innings.
The Red Sox signed former Yankee Aceves in February and even gave him a look as a starter. He went 0-1 with a 4.05 ERA this spring.
Albers sported a 1.80 ERA and struck out 11 without walking a batter in 10 spring innings. The 28-year-old had a 4.52 ERA with 49 strikeouts and 34 walks in 75 2/3 innings pitched for Baltimore last season.
Reyes also dominated this spring with a 1.29 ERA, with seven strikeouts and two walks in seven innings. The 33-year-old pitched for the Cardinals last season and had a 3.55 ERA with 25 strikeouts and 21 walks in 38 innings.
Boston's 25-man Opening Day roster:
" Left-handed relievers (1): Reyes
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.