Last year, the bullpen lacked depth. Many games were lost in the 7th and 8th innings because of this. Okajima surprised us all with some big-time struggles. Manny Delcarmen was volatile. Mike Timlin didn't have much left in the tank. Craig Hansen was an outright bust. If not for Justin Masterson, the Sox would have had a one man bullpen.
This year, there's reason to be optimistic when it comes to the relievers.
The Red Sox have one of the best closers in baseball. He had a career high 41 saves in '08, an astonishing 77 strikeouts compared to 8 walks (that's 9.6 to 1), a 0.952 WHIP and a 2.34 ERA. Oh yeah, he's also pitched 25 postseason innings in his career, all without allowing an earned run.
I felt like the Sox overused Papelbon just a bit last year, but nothing bad happened, so I'm probably wrong. They also had very little choice. I'd like to see Papelbon hit 60 to 65 innings MAX, with 60 or fewer appearances.
Who sets up for Papelbon? Francona has some nice options to answer that question.
Takashi Saito's 39 years old, and has fewer seasons in the Bigs than Papelbon. In 3 years with the Dodgers, he's pitched in 180 games, throwing 189.2 innings, recording 81 saves, with a 1.95 ERA and a 0.912 WHIP.
My two favorite numbers with Saito: He strikes out 5 times as many batters as he walks (245 to 52 in his career), and he's only allowed 9 homeruns, or 1 homerun every 21 innings.
His age and a ligament injury from last summer might be his undoing, but he seems like a Japanese version of a slightly younger Mike Timlin.
24 year old Justin Masterson really was a savior for the bullpen last year. This season, he is an option for the rotation, but hopefully he'll be a reliever (that would mean guys like Penny and Smoltz worked out).
Masterson pitched 34.1 innings as a reliever last year, with a 2.36 ERA and a .213 opponent batting average. He'll be used where the Sox need him. Right now, the Sox have 7 other potential starters, so they might need him most in the pen.
Razor Ramon Ramirez is a 27 year old righty, formerly of the Royals and Rockies. Last year with Kansas City, he pitched in 71 games, had a 2.64 ERA, a 1.228 WHIP, and 21 Holds. It's easy to be excited with those numbers. However, sometimes relievers put up one great year, then struggle for the rest of their lives. That's why they're relievers. I'm not saying Ramirez will be a bomb here, and he's certainly surrounded by talent to take off most of the pressure of pitching here, but he's far from guaranteed. One great year in Kansas City does not make a great reliever.
The pressure is off Hideki Okajima. He's no longer the clear #1 set-up man. He might even be #2, 3, or even 4. Last year, he had serious problems with inherited runners. This year, Francona can avoid using him in such situations. His ERA was good, but he blew 8 Saves. In '09, Francona can pick and choose his spots with Okajima. The added depth in the pen helps Hideki more than anyone else (except Papelbon perhaps).
Last year, the Red Sox needed Manny Delcarmen in order to have a solid bullpen. Thankfully, in 2009, this is not the case. Delcarmen struggled in key situations. He allowed one third of the runners he inherited to score. He struggled with consistency. With the new guys taking care of the 7th and 8th innings, Delcarmen can be used as a middle reliever in the 5th and 6th. I think this role suits him best. When the game's on the line, I simply do not trust him. Not yet, at least. His dreadful outings in the ALCS don't help that mistrust.
Javier Lopez will probably be the last man into the bullpen, even if the Sox only go with 6 relievers. Why? He's lefthanded.
I'm not a fan of Javier Lopez. But he's a necessary evil. You need to have that token lefty specialist to come into the 6th inning and get one or two tough outs. I don't like when Lopez comes into games, but most of the time he does a halfway decent job.
Last year, if the starting pitcher didn't get through 7 innings, even 4 and 5 run leads were in serious jeopardy. This year, things seem different. But this isn't a sure thing, of course. Saito is 39, Masterson's a kid, Ramirez has one great year under his belt and not much more, Okajima sucked for most of 2008, and Delcarmen failed as a set-up man.
But I'm optimistic.