Despite dropping both ends of Sunday’s doubleheader, the Boston Red Sox are off to a better start to 2013 than anyone could have imagined. They currently sit atop the AL East at 12-6, anchored by a pitching staff that has posted a collective 2.83 ERA and 1.15 WHIP.
The question remains, though, just how stable they are at the back end of games.
While the starters have more than carried the load, leading MLB in ERA (2.53) and strikeouts (117), the bullpen has not been the source of strength it was expected to be. Boston's relievers collectively sport a pedestrian 3.48 ERA (13th in MLB) and have blown four saves, a troubling total for this early in the season.
The Red Sox are going to be in close games all year, so the fact that they’ve already blown four of their six losses in the late innings cannot be taken lightly. Quite simply, for the Red Sox to contend, this problem needs to be resolved immediately.
Joel Hanrahan has not been the answer in the ninth inning, as anyone who watched him could tell you. Prior to going on the DL with hamstring problems, the newly acquired closer had given up three home runs and five walks in just 4.2 innings of work, problematic numbers for someone whose job is to keep people off of the bases.
Andrew Bailey has been decent as a closer. His stuff that made him an All-Star in Oakland has returned, recording at least one strikeout in every appearance so far this season. While he closed out two three-run wins in Cleveland, he sandwiched those between a 26-pitch blown save at home against Tampa and a 22-pitch near-blown save against Kansas City on Saturday. Bailey was thriving in the eighth inning prior to Hanrahan’s injury (4.0 IP, 0 ER, 6 SO), so it makes sense to leave him there.
Instead of relying on Bailey to shuttle between roles, the Red Sox should instead give a tryout to their best reliever since the beginning of 2012: Junichi Tazawa.
Tazawa did not get much press last year, considering how much more interesting pretty much every other storyline was. This does not mean, though, that Tazawa wasn’t incredible in 2012. He led all Red Sox relievers in ERA (1.43) and WHIP (0.95), doing much of his work in September as the team’s primary setup man.
He’s off to a great start in 2013, having allowed just one earned run over nine innings. He’s earned four holds and two wins in his eight appearances as well, showing right from the start that he belongs in high-leverage situations.
Tazawa has all the makings of a fine closer: He strikes people out (a 9.3 SO/9 rate over the last two seasons), keeps runners off base (0.91 WHIP) and keeps the ball in the park (0.3 HR/9). While he only has one save to his credit for his career (and that one a three-inning relief stint in a blowout win), many have stepped into the closer’s role with little experience and have thrived.
He may not be the permanent solution; Hanrahan was brought here to close, and when he’s healthy he will get a chance to keep his job. Bailey, too, is an accomplished closer who not all that long ago was supposed to be the answer in that role.
Tazawa, though, represents a possible glimpse to the future. He is under team control until 2017, whereas Hanrahan is a free agent after this season as is Bailey after 2014. The Red Sox can afford to tinker a little with the back end of their bullpen in order to bring the relief corps up to the same high performance level as the rest of the team.