Around the Horn: Bullpen
Acquisitions like Mujica and Badenhop bring competition to Red Sox's relief corps
With pitchers and catchers reporting Saturday, anticipation is building for the 2014 season. MLB.com is going around the horn to break down each area of the Red Sox, continuing with the bullpen.
By the time the Red Sox were dousing each other with champagne late last October, the bullpen had gone from a modest strength to an overwhelming success story.
Give general manager Ben Cherington credit for not falling in love with his cast of relievers as he embarked on the Hot Stove months.
If there is a position where it is nearly impossible to project performance from year to year, it is in the bullpen. While nearly all of Boston's bullpen is returning from the World Series championship edition, Cherington has also created some competition by making some important acquisitions.
"I feel like our front office deserves kind of absolute respect for what they've done and what they continue to do," said lefty Craig Breslow. "I feel like I'm in a place where, if they felt like these are guys that can help our team, I'm certainly on board with that."
Most prominent among them was the signing of righty Edward Mujica to a deal worth $9.5 million over two years. Mujica was a solid closer for the Cardinals last season before a dramatic slump, perhaps induced by fatigue, led to his demotion in September and into the postseason.
But if the righty can get his groove back, the Red Sox have a solid insurance policy for Koji Uehara, who turns 39 the first week of the regular season.
"Edward was a guy we focused in on pretty quickly, in part because of who he is and in part because of what he does," said Cherington. "He's an extreme strike-thrower. He's aggressive. He's fearless. He's got a really solid assortment of pitches. He gets righties and lefties out. He's pitched obviously very successfully in the ninth inning but also before that. We just thought he was a really good fit for our team."
As dominant as Uehara was, there are clearly no guarantees that his arm can hold up like it did last season. And if you remember, Uehara was actually signed for depth reasons last year, and that move proved to be invaluable, considering the season-ending injuries sustained by Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan.
Perhaps the Mujica signing will turn out to be just as important.
"There are some similarities just given the background," said Cherington. "Both guys have pitched both in the ninth inning and in other parts of the game successfully. Both guys have been part of good teams and good bullpens and been on teams where, at least at the end of their tenure, someone else was closing, perhaps that made them available.
"They both have really good splits or changes. They both throw a lot of strikes. There's some similarities, but they're their own guys too. Edward has a certain style of attacking hitters. There are some differences too. We think they both really fit well, obviously, for what we think works for our team and our division."
The other potentially key acquisition is righty Burke Badenhop, a sinkerballer who has quietly put up solid numbers the last few seasons. With the Brewers in 2013, he notched a 3.47 ERA in 63 games.
While Uehara and Mujica might be asked to get the most important outs in the bullpen, Junichi Tazawa is also going to play a big role. After struggling down the stretch in the regular season, Tazawa turned into a force in October, giving up just one run in 13 appearances.
Lefty Breslow, at least until the World Series, had the best season of his life. He hopes to build off that.
And one thing that has the Red Sox very excited is the return of Andrew Miller, the lanky lefty who had developed into a legitimate weapon before a foot injury ended his season just before the All-Star break. Miller doesn't expect any setbacks as he embarks on 2014, and he is eager to take on whatever role manager John Farrell presents to him.
"The bullpen is a volatile place to pitch," said Miller. "I've got to be ready to step in and help out in whatever role is available and pick up some slack if need be. I hope the positive is that my arm is fresh, and I'm ready to go this year and make the best out of it."
Righty Brandon Workman certainly made the best out of his opportunities last year in his rookie season. In the postseason, he got some crucial outs and might evolve back into a starter at some point if the opportunity presents itself.
Workman figures to be Mr. Versatility in that he can pitch in long, middle or short relief.
"I think that the combination of pitchers we have in our 'pen, the different types of pitchers, obviously left-right, gives us a chance to match up effectively and use guys and perhaps manage the workload for all of them over the course of the season," Cherington said.