As much as we're all focused on who will play left field and shortstop and third base next season, it's important to remember the part of the roster with which Theo Epstein had the most success last season -- and thus the part of the roster he'll undoubtedly try to tweak once again this winter: The bullpen.
Jonathan Papelbon almost certainly will be back. Hideki Okajima has been as consistent as it gets over the last few years. Daniel Bard is an up-and-coming flamethrower -- though no one in this particular neighborhood is completely convinced he's not going to be a starting pitcher at some point. Manny Delcarmen endured his rockiest season. Ramon Ramirez was untouchable in April and May but very touchable in August and September. Takashi Saito has been outrighted off the 40-man roster and likely won't be back. A endless cast of characters rotated through the final spot in the bullpen once Justin Masterson was traded to Cleveland.
(Postscript: And now Billy Wagner is gone, on his way to Atlanta to become the Braves' new closer.)
All of that means Epstein has to be surveying the free-agent market -- between phone calls to Jason Bay's agent, of course -- to see who might be an upgrade on what he has:
Kiko Calero: Even including a miserable season in 2007, the 34-year-old righty has a career 3.24 ERA in 312 appearances out of the bullpen. A year ago, he had a 1.95 ERA and struck out better than a batter an inning and allowed just one home run in 60 innings pitched. His career walk rate is a tick above the major-league average, but so too is his strikeout rate.
Even better: He won't cost a draft pick.
Octavio Dotel: The 36-year-old righty isn't a closer anymore, but he had a 3.55 ERA in 129 1/3 innings spanning two seasons with the White Sox, striking out more than a hitter an inning in both of his years in Chicago. The injury issues that plagued him in Oakland, New York, Kansas City and Atlanta seem to be behind him, and he's evolving as a pitcher: He added a cutter to his repertoire last season.
The downside to Dotel is that he's a Type A free agent who would require the forfeiture of a first-round pick -- though if the Red Sox signed both Dotel and Marco Scutaro, one of the two would mean forfeiting only a second-round pick. Heck, if the Red Sox sign Matt Holliday, they'd only lose a third-round pick for either Dotel or Scutaro.
Mike Gonzalez: Like Wagner, this lefty almost certainly will be looking for job where he can close. (The Pirates, the team with whom he had an All-Star caliber year in 2006, reportedly are interested.) If he doesn't find that, though, he could be a perfect replacement for Wagner in front of Papelbon in the Red Sox bullpen. Gonzalez had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.85 in his last two seasons in Atlanta, and both righties and lefties have OPS'ed less than .650 against him in his career. Like Dotel, he's a Type A free agent.
Kevin Gregg: Another Type A free agent, the former Cubs and Marlins closer endured a rocky season (4.72 ERA) en route to losing his job at the back end of the bullpen. He has, however, allowed just 14 percent of inherited runners to score in the last two seasons -- even if his walk rate has been above the major-league average in each of the last three seasons.
Brandon Lyon: The righty once traded for Curt Schilling had a 2.86 ERA in setup duty with Detroit this season thanks in large part to a ground ball-to-fly ball ratio well above the major-league average. He allowed inherited runners to score at a less-than-impressive 36 percent clip last season, but his strikeout rate has increased in each of the last two seasons.
Justin Miller: The former disappointment with Toronto has a 3.65 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.15 over his past three seasons in Florida and San Francisco. His 3.18 ERA last season might be something of a mirage, though, given his K/BB ratio of 1.33, his BABIP of .248 and his inherited runners strand rate of 30 percent.
Chan Ho Park: At one time a devastating free-agent signing in Texas -- the Rangers gave him a $65 million contract after the 2001 season -- Park reinvented himself as a relief pitcher with the Dodgers and Phillies. His strikeout rate is right around the major-league average (7.9 per nine innings last season) but his walk rate is impressive (3.6) and has dropped significantly since his lousy years as a starter. One possible snag: Park told The Korea Times earlier this month that he wants to be a starting pitcher again.
B.J. Ryan: The closer cast off by the Blue Jays last season saw his strikeout rate plummet and his walk rate skyrocket during his years in Toronto, a warning sign for any team interested in him. During his heyday, however, he had a strikeout-to-walk rate around 4.0 and had a sub-3.00 ERA as recently as two seasons ago. The Blue Jays still owe him $10 million next season, so he might come cheap as a flier if he's interested in a chance to redeem himself as a setup man.
Rafael Soriano: There are reports that the Red Sox have requested medical records on the Braves' hard-throwing closer, a 30-year-old with a career 2.92 ERA and strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.51. A year ago, he struck out 12.1 batters per nine innings, and he's flirted with 10.0 and 11.0 several other times during his career. He endured a heavy workload (75 2/3 innings in 77 appearances) a year ago and found himself hit hard by lefties (.746 OPS, though a .330 BABIP didn't help). Still, though, there's a chance he could do what the Red Sox have waited three years for Delcarmen to do -- be the team's primary shut-down reliever against righties.
Claudio Vargas: Another former starter who resurrected his career as a reliever, Vargas had a 1.78 ERA in 30 1/3 innings after being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers a year ago. He's not a pitcher who will miss bats much, though, and he's more of a fly-ball pitcher than a ground-ball pitcher. It would be easy to attribute his success, in fact, to a spectacularly low .202 BABIP a year ago -- a mark he's not likely to replicate.