Just because the Red Sox declined to pick up Dan Wheelerâ€™s $3 million option for the 2012 season doesnâ€™t automatically spell the end of the partnership between the team and relief pitcher.
As Wheeler explained when reached Monday afternoon, the opportunity to return to Boston remains on the table. Itâ€™s just that the process in doing so has completely changed.
â€śI wasnâ€™t completely shocked that they didnâ€™t pick it up, but the thing I took from [Sox management] was that they still wanted to keep the lines of communication open,â€ť said the 33-year-old Warwick native. â€śThereâ€™s a chance I could come back, but weâ€™ll see what happens.â€ť
"We didn't feel like we could commit to that money for him this early in the offseason," said Boston general manager Ben Cherington to the Associated Press on Monday night. "We'll keep the door open."
Wheeler admits he saw Mondayâ€™s announcement coming, especially in wake of a 2011 campaign that got off to a disastrous start â€“ his ERA stood at 11.32 when he landed on the disabled list in early May. Though his stat line improved ten-fold upon returning from a strained calf, Wheeler seemed to pitch in the type of high-leverage situations he routinely found himself thrust into during previous stints with Houston and Tampa Bay.
When Wheeler was asked by Blackstone Valley Sports last month if he felt he had been properly deployed by then-manager Terry Francona, his response was â€śI donâ€™t know.â€ť Wheeler spun a more precise tune when pressed with the same question Monday, providing an answer more in line to where he ranked among the hierarchy in Bostonâ€™s bullpen.
â€śItâ€™s just that this year we had a setup where we had multiple guys who could pitch in those situations,â€ť Wheeler said. â€śWe had a luxury given the way Pap [Jonathan Papelbon] and [Daniel] Bard threw. [Matt] Albers, I thought he had a tremendous year. I donâ€™t think his numbers really show how well he pitched.
â€śFor me I canâ€™t get upset because Iâ€™m rooting as hard for those guys as they would be if I was out there,â€ť continued Wheeler, who in his first and potentially lone season with the Red Sox posted a 4.38 ERA in 47 relief appearances along with 39 strikeouts and eight walks in 49 1/3 innings pitched. For his career, Wheeler has appeared in 577 games with another 21 coming in the postseason.
Finding a team that is willing to grant Wheeler a spot to pitch in late-game crucial spots is something that figures to trump the idea of the local product suiting up for the hometown team.
â€śThatâ€™s what I feel that Iâ€™m capable of doing, being in those situations,â€ť said Wheeler. â€śI really enjoyed my time in Boston, but you never know [about coming back] until you start fielding phone calls.â€ť
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Wheeler falls under the criteria of a Type B free agent. That means if the Red Sox offer Wheeler arbitration and the right-hander decides to sign with another club, Boston would be awarded a compensatory draft pick.
Monday also saw the BoSox decline the team option they held for reliever Scott Atchison. The 35-year-old had bounced between Boston and Pawtucket in each of the past two seasons. In 2010, Atchison made 44 appearances with the Red Sox compared to 11 at the Triple-A level. In 2011, he made 17 appearances over six stints with the Red Sox, posting a 1-0 record with a 3.26 ERA. He also pitched in 36 games with Pawtucket, going 6-2 with five saves, a 2.64 ERA.
Atchison started the PawSoxâ€™ 2011 home opener after Alfredo Aceves was called up by the Sox.