Never too early to worry about a bullpen for the Red Sox

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Jonathan PapelbonIt’s not news that the fans in Beantown live and die with every loss. If the boys in white and red (and sometimes blue and red) finish the season anything less than 162-0, then the season is a disaster. This so-called closer controversy is nothing new either. The main reason Jonathan Papelbon was able to secure $50 million this off-season was because of his permanent transition to closer for the Boston Red Sox in 2006. That spring he was being stretched out to return to the starting rotation which is where he was installed upon being drafted in 2003.

Fast forward to 2012. There wasn’t supposed to be a closer controversy. Papelbon went to the City of Brotherly love with virtually no fan fare and the heir to his 9th inning throne was picked up from the Oakland Athletics. Andrew Bailey is a somewhat doughy, baby-faced right hander, just like Papelbon and his fun-loving demeanor would (and will) have been a nice change-up from Papelbon’s Southern-frat-boy demeanor. But a freak thumb injury in Spring Training, as we’ve all heard 25 times a day since the incidence occurred, will sideline Bailey until at least the All-Star break.

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The clear favorite to replace the replacement, was the other former closer in the bullpen, also acquired through trade this off-season, Mark Melancon. Melancon has both experience closing, and experience pitching in the AL East from his early days with the Yankees. Instead, the closer job was given to Alfredo Aceves, who has been a swing man for most of his career, by Bobby Valentine. It’s hard for me not to think this was the saline-solution to remove the salt from Aceves’ not-winning-a-rotation-spot wound. He spoke out after Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront won the final two spots in the rotation, citing that he never had a chance because of Bard’s conversion being a winter long project that the team wasn’t going to abolish. Placing Aceves into the 9th inning role sounded good in principle, he’s gutsy and has a rubber arm. But statistically? My head is still shaking side-to-side. Aceves is effectively wild. He walks a fair share of batters and hits his fair share of batters. He can work his way out of self-imposed jams, but there is no particularly good explanation on how. He doesn’t strikeout too many guys, 6.27/9 over his career. He also isn’t a ground ball inducer, which to be quite honest, surprised me. His career ground ball rate is 39.3%, which is about what he did last year (39.6%). He is getting outs though, as evident by his .238 batting average on balls in play. But with only 241 career innings and as any starting pitcher will tell you, that number can fluctuate 100 points in either direction without warning if you’re not striking guys out at an above average rate.

Prone to free passes, both base-on-balls and hitting batters, and not fooling anyone or inducing grounders does not a closer make. Reversing the starting pitching conversion from Daniel Bard or giving Melancon the shot he deserves seem like options in the pipeline. However, the season is in its infancy, and to make knee-jerk reactions this early would be foolish. Small sample caveats always apply for relievers, but it seems like feelings may have been in play when instilling Aceves as closer. It will be a long road to the All-Star break if the league catches up to Aceves and his bag of tricks and to paraphrase Rick Petino, Jonathan Papelbon ain’t walking through that door.

Andrew E. Irons is an MLB writer for TSB and can be contacted at

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