Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bullpen competition just gets deeper

It doesn't sound like Joe Nelson was in a position to be particularly choosy, but his phone interview with MLB.com certainly revealed an interesting sentiment.

"For me," he said, "(Boston) just looked like the best place to have a legitimate fighting chance in spring training. ... They're not bringing in a whole bunch of guys. They have the two spots they're really looking at. They have internal depth but not as much experience, and, for me, I had multiple teams making multiple offers, and they just seemed like the best fit."

The goal for Nelson appears to be to win the last spot in the bullpen, the spot vacated by Takashi Saito this winter. Saito tended not to pitch in many high-profile situations, making just seven appearances in what could be defined as save situations and facing almost two-thirds of hitters in situations that could be defined as low-leverage.

Any major-league job, though, is a coveted major-league job. The Red Sox appear to have candidates lined up for either one or two bullpen spots, depending upon what happens with Tim Wakefield. Scott Atchison, Boof Bonser, Ramon A. Ramirez, Dustin Richardson and Brian Shouse all figure to be in the mix with Nelson for the final one or two spots in the bullpen.

If Wakefield finds his way onto the Opening Day roster, only one of the above pitchers will join him. The winner probably will be the one who carves the best niche for himself.

Nelson? The journeyman righty, who made three appearances for the Red Sox in 2004, compiled a 2.00 ERA in 54 innings pitched for the Florida Marlins in 2008. His ERA jumped to 4.02 with Tampa Bay last season as his walk rate jumped (from 3.7 to 6.0 per nine innings) and his strikeout rate dropped (from 10.8 to 8.0 per nine innings).

Interestingly, Nelson has a reverse split: He actually tends to fare better against lefthanded hitters than he does against righties. Lefties have OPS'ed .668 against him in his career as compared to .776 for righties, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio last season was almost twice as good against lefties (1.77) as it was against righties (0.93).

In that way, he's a little bit like Manny Delcarmen. Having too much in common with a reliever already on the staff probably isn't good for his chances, as the Red Sox already have a couple of pitchers on staff who historically have had success against lefties. That niche already has been taken.

Several other candidates for the last spot have their own niches:
* Bonser used to be a starter and could fill the Justin Masterson swingman role, throwing hard out of the bullpen but making a spot start or two;
* Ramirez is almost untouchable (.388 career OPS) against righties, though the small sample size and a relatively low strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.5) means that number might be unsustainable;
* Richardson is a young lefty who misses bats at a Daniel Bard-esque rate and could grow into a complement for Bard before too long;
* Shouse is a one-hitter lefty in the mold of Mike Myers.

Nelson doesn't really have the type of distinguishing characteristic -- other than his "Vulcan" changeup -- that makes him a strong candidate to win that last spot.

He's right, though: It's all still up in the air. He'll have a legitimate fighting chance -- and with the way relievers come and go, even starting the season in Pawtucket would give him a chance to get to the major leagues before too long.


Anonymous said...

No competition... unless Bonser dies he is getting the spot.

floydiansea said...

I would think Bonser has it pretty much sewn up, unless his arm falls off or he changes his name to Bucky Dent Bonser or something.