For all of the ups and downs the Red Sox endured a year ago, the bullpen remained a virtual constant throughout. Sure, there were exceptions -- a miserable night in late June in Baltimore and an even worse afternoon in early October at Fenway Park come to mind -- but Terry Francona's bullpen tended to do its job as well as any in the American League.
Only the Oakland Athletics finished the season with a better bullpen ERA (3.54) than the Red Sox (3.80) -- though, to play devil's advocate, the Red Sox were a middle-of-the-pack team in the American League in walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) and strikeout-to-walk ratio as well as opponents' OPS.
Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner since have departed, both to the Atlanta Braves. Before you overstate the loss of Saito and Wagner, though, consider that the two combined to pitch 69 1/3 innings last season -- a tick less than the total Ramon Ramirez compiled by himself.
There certainly appears to be space to add another proven arm -- a Kiko Calero, for example, whose high strikeout rate might appeal to the Red Sox -- but general manager Theo Epstein said on Friday he doesn't see himself making anything but minor moves to fortify his bullpen.
"We're comfortable where we are," Epstein said. "There may be an opportunity to do some fine-tuning, to add a guy on a non-roster deal or a buy-low-type thing. We'll see what the market bears. But we're pretty comfortable with where we are. The first five guys are probably pretty obvious."
In case it's not obvious, those first five:
* Daniel Bard (R)
* Manny Delcarmen (R)
* Hideki Okajima (L)
* Jonathan Papelbon (R)
* Ramon Ramirez (R)
If the Red Sox go with a 12-man pitching staff, that leaves two spots to fill. One of those, barring an injury, might have to be devoted to a starting pitcher -- likely knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.
"We have six starters, so if everybody is healthy, we may have to save a spot for one of the starters," Epstein said.
The last spot, the spot Saito filled for much of the season, remains up in the air. Veteran righty Scott Atchison signed a one-year contract to come back from Japan, and former starter Boof Bonser was acquired from Minnesota to see if his live arm could translate to the bullpen. Young lefty Dustin Richardson likewise could be a factor -- especially after recording more than a strikeout an inning in a season split between Double-A and Triple-A a year ago.
Michael Bowden can't be dismissed as an option, either. Bowden likely will open the season as a starting pitcher at Triple-A -- the No. 7 starter, if you will -- but might have a better future as a reliever than as a starter.
Bonser is a particularly intriguing option. Much like Justin Masterson over the past couple of seasons, Bonser could have the ability to pitch multiple innings either in a mop-up role or in a game that hasn't yet been decided. The righty missed all of last season with a torn labrum and rotator cuff, but the Twins already had begun converting him to the bullpen.
Bonser had a 5.88 ERA in 35 relief appearances in 2008, but that ERA belies an arm that struck out better than a hitter an inning and accumulated a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.44 -- numbers that compare favorably with any pitcher in the Red Sox bullpen.
(A BABIP of .374 in those 35 appearances didn't help him much.)
"He looked good in the bullpen in short stints when healthy," Epstein said. "He had significant surgery, but he checked out really well in our physical. We're excited to see him in the spring."