PAWTUCKET — Relief pitchers inherently are the most fickle commodity in baseball. That’s why teams are inclined to stockpile as many candidates as they can each season, crossing one’s fingers that one or two arms pan out and solidify the foundation already in place.
The Red Sox have taken the bullpen arms-race quite seriously in 2011, assembling a pool of candidates so deep in major league experience that the PawSox are the ones reaping the benefits. Out of the seven relievers that first-year manager Arnie Beyeler has at his disposal, five have pitched in the majors, logging 552 appearances amongst them.
“I think the only thing we’re kind of missing if it was a major-league bullpen is a big-time closer,” assessed lefthander Rich Hill. “There are a lot of veteran guys who have been around.”
The relief corps assembled in Pawtucket isn’t about to threaten BoSox closer Jonathan Papelbon or eighth-inning bridges Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks. Dan Wheeler also falls in the safe category. That leaves Matt Albers, Dennys Reyes and ageless knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, three pitchers who were awarded the last spots in Boston’s bullpen as spring training was wrapping up. Such maneuvering left Scott Atchison, Hideki Okajima and Hill in the cold, albeit temporarily.
However, just because the Red Sox broke camp with the group that they did, does not automatically mean the same personnel will remain intact until the final out of the final game. If history is any sort of guide, Atchison, Okajima and Hill will be heard from at some point, perhaps even Michael Bowden and Randy Williams.
For now, though, this group will be stationed in Pawtucket.
“I’m here and I’ve got to take care of my own business. They (Boston) went with what they felt were the best options to start the year. It’s the way it goes, but I’m over it and ready to start the season on Thursday,” said Atchison, one of Boston’s most valuable bullpen options last year. “If the call comes, hopefully I’m one of the guys who (Boston) wants. I’m just going to keep doing my thing and keep plucking away.”
The Red Sox hold minor-league options on Atchison and Okajima, meaning they did not have to worry about exposing either veteran pitcher to waivers upon reassignment.
Okajima, Boston’s onetime No. 1 left-handed option, said at Tuesday’s Media Day gathering at McCoy Stadium that he was disappointed upon learning he would be starting the season in Triple-A. Such feelings have subsided in recent days, however, giving way to the realization that how he fares in Pawtucket could rekindle the trust Red Sox had in the Japanese import at one time.
“The first two days were hard, but I’ve gotten past that stage,” said Okajima through interpreter Jeff Cutler. “I’m going to be working on my pitches, but (in the minors) it’s all about results. I need to make sure I get the outs, because if I don’t get them, then I won’t be called up.”
While Atchison and Okajima (career-worst 4.50 ERA in 2010) are viewed as seasoned pros, it’s Hill who owns the most upside, mainly because the ball is being released from a 6-foot-4 southpaw – a devastating angle if you were to poll major league hitters. The biggest change for the Milton, Mass. native is that he has dropped down his arm down to a sidearm motion. The recommendation came last season from then-Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, now Toronto’s new manager.
“I would drop down to left-handed hitters every now and then when I started,” said Hill, who doesn’t view himself as a lefty specialist, the role currently occupied by Reyes in Boston.
The crowded nature of Pawtucket’s bullpen has pushed Bowden even further down the depth chart. Drafted as a starting pitcher in 2005, the 24-year-old Bowden made the transition last year from starter to reliever. He made 15 relief appearances for Pawtucket last year before honing his new role with a stint in Venezuela this past winter. Yet as Theo Epstein kept taking names of relievers in the offseason, Bowden resigned himself to the reality that he would be back with the PawSox come April.
“At this point I feel very comfortable out of the ‘pen,” expressed Bowden. “Then again, in this game you’re never done learning. I’ll continue to talk to guys, but at this point I feel confident and know what I’m doing.”
Jason Rice, Clevelan Santeliz and Williams, a 35-year-old who has appeared in 90 MLB games, round out Pawtucket’s bullpen. Rice could potentially close games for the PawSox, a role he took to last season when the 24-year-old saved 13 games for Double-A Portland. All told the PawSox will come at International League opponents with three lefties (Okajima, Hill, Williams) and four from the right side (Atchison, Bowden, Rice, Santeliz).
“It’s about getting these guys their innings because we want to keep them fresh,” said pitching coach Rich Sauveur, back for his fourth season with Pawtucket. “I don’t want to be wearing a guy out, pitching him three out of four days. Matchup situations could happen, but don’t expect them to come in for one hitter and they’re done for the night. Expect them to come in and possibly stay out there for another inning.”
Atchison says he’s not about to monitor the progress of the relievers Boston chose to break camp with, nor is it worth the energy to engage in a “Survivor-esque” competition with his fellow Pawtucket brothers-in-arms.
“I’m rooting for Rich, Randy and for everyone to do well. We’re still trying to win ballgames down here, so you’re never going to root against somebody; that’s not the right way to go about,” Atchison said. “I think you have to take it that if someone throws well, I need to follow it. That’s good because it brings out the best in everyone.”