It’s pretty clear to this SoxFan’s eyes what Theo Epstein needs to be buying come the July trading deadline: A middle reliever.
Bullpens almost by definition are dicey affairs. They are made up of pitchers who are usually failed starters or failed closers. They swing wildly from success to failure and back to success. They work in a situation where posting an average or slightly above average ERA is not acceptable because allowing a run in four of every nine one-inning appearances is a terrible result.
Theo has had a lot of trouble building bullpens. I don’t know if this is reflective of him or of a leaguewide difficulty in building bullpens. I do know the Sox have the worst bullpen ERA in the division, this despite having one of the division’s two best closers, and sixth-worst in the league.
Not that having struggles with your pen is a fatal condition. In 2003, mismanagement by Grady Little (which ultimately did prove to be a fatal condition) led to the collapse of the misnamed "bullpen by committee," but Epstein rebounded with a terrific midseason trade for Byung-Hyun Kim, whose contributions down the stretch that year are sorely underrated, in part because Little ultimately mismanaged Kim into postseason obsolescence. By the postseason, we trusted Mike Timlin and Alan Embree enough to be screaming for them when Little sauntered to the mound in ALCS Game 7.
"Bullpen by committee" was untenable from then on, so Epstein signed Keith Foulke to handle the closer’s duties. He excelled, but the rest of the pen was patchwork and inconsistent. It came together in the postseason, improbably so, with Curtis Leskanic of all people and Tim Wakefield among the heroes during the marathon Games 4 and 5. The next year, Foulke went from strength to weakness, and Curt Schilling tried his hand — badly — at closing. Had Timlin not stepped up with 13 saves and a 2.24 ERA, the Sox would not have made the playoffs.
2006 was little better. Jonathan Papelbon emerged as a force, but Timlin and Julian Tavarez were inconsistent. Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen were terrible, exceeded in awfulness only by Rudy Seanez and Lenny DiNardo. That led to last year, when Delcarmen stabilized, Timlin broke through with a great year after some early struggles, Papelbon was Papelbon, and new acquisition Hideki Okajima was simpy amazing.
But last year was last year. Papelbon’s still great, but Timlin looks done, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to get better like before. Delcarmen has yet to show the consistency he needs to stick in the big leagues, and despite a resurrection in his stuff, Hansen is still allowing too many baserunners. The league has obviously figured out Okajima’s changeup. David Aardsma and Javier Lopez may be the best the Sox have at this point, and Aardsma has been critically involved in each of the last two losses.
They say the first third of the season is to assess your weaknesses, and the second third is to evaluate options. The weakness is clear; now it’s up to Theo Epstein to find the option that will lead this club back to the playoffs. They may not make it otherwise.