It's hard to predict bullpens, but if you're going to engage in the activity, the Red Sox relief corps is one that can safely be deemed great. There were issues last year thanks to a lack of depth, especially after a spring injury to Andrew Bailey, but general manager Ben Cherington seems to have rectified those concerns heading into 2013 through signings, trades, and some late-season 2012 developments that were, unlike most of the team in September, worth paying attention to.
Joel Hanrahan, who owns a 166 ERA+ with a strikeout per inning over his two full years as Pirates' closer, is on board after the Red Sox acquired him in a six-player deal before the new year. Hanrahan will bump Bailey from the closer role, making Bailey (who sports a career 172 ERA+ and strikeout-to-walk ratio over 3.0) part of a three-headed setup beast. The other two pieces are free agent signing Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa. Uehara might have the best control of anyone in the majors, as he's walked just 27 batters unintentionally total in 157 games and 211 innings. Uehara has a history of being difficult to hit as well, making the homers less of a problem since they tend to be solo shots. Even with that, Uehara has spent his entire career in hitter's parks, and has yielded just 1.1 homers per nine despite his command -- the homers only appear problematic from a comparative point of view.
Then there's Tazawa, who was once a viable starting-pitching prospect, but instead underwent Tommy John surgery that derailed his career. The Red Sox converted him to relief during his rehab in 2011, and, with time, his velocity shot up to the mid-to-high 90s. Combine a wicked fastball with movement with the kind of accuracy that Uehara can appreciate, and you get Tazawa's 2012, in which he struck out 45 batters in 44 major-league innings, and against just five free passes, with a 1.43 ERA. This was a continuation of dominance that began at Double-A Portland during the then-25-year-old's rehab, as Tazawa has struck out 147 batters in his last 123 innings across three levels, allowing just 32 walks in the process.
Add in Craig Breslow, a southpaw who sits lefties and righties down with equal precision and swingman Franklin Morales, and you start to see why the Red Sox could afford to let the most underrated reliever in the game walk earlier this off-season. The thing is, this might not even be the full extent of Boston's great relievers.
Daniel Bard is about 6-foot-4 of "if" right now, but if he can return to form, then the last man in the Red Sox bullpen is going to be Franklin Morales, who very likely could be a successful starting pitcher on a team with the room. Bard's 2012 went about as poorly as any season can, short of career-ending injury. Despite a promising start to his conversion to starting, the wheels eventually came off, derailing his season and possibly his career. Myriad issues cropped up, with Bard losing velocity shortly after he was left in a few starts by then-manager Bobby Valentine too long, and constant tinkering with his mechanics and arm slot resulted in fat and flat fastballs that either caught too much of the zone or missed completely.
Bard, at his best, could throw in the high-90s with what we'll call effective wildness. Everything happened too fast for hitters to realize that maybe they would be better off not swinging, and if they decided to go that route, Bard was accurate enough to make them pay for that transgression thanks to one of the game's best sliders. If you need visuals as confirmation, Bard could do this:
Bard stopped using his slider as much in 2012, since he couldn't set it up with his fastball. His heater was used to induce grounders to compensate for the loss of velocity, but thanks to problems with his arm slot, he couldn't locate the pitch low enough in the zone to get that done. By the time Bard was demoted in June, he was too far gone to be helped in-season, and his conversion back to relief went no better than his time in the majors.
Bard planned to just put down the baseball until it was time for his off-season throwing programs, hoping that the time off would allow him to just pick things back up naturally, pre-2012. According to new manager John Farrell -- who also used to be Bard's pitching coach, and was the manager in the opposing dugout when Bard pitched his way out of starting and the majors -- this, and a move back to basics, seemed best as he worked his way back to relevance.
The early reports out of spring training -- and even before that, from Farrell's off-season visits to his pitchers -- make it seem as if Bard is throwing with power and in the proper arm slot once more. A lot of things are said in spring training, though, so confirmation will require televised spring-training contests to know if there truly is a change. Regardless, the last spot in the bullpen is likely his to lose, but if things are back in order, and 2012 a distant memory, then he won't lose it. If that's the case, Boston's pen can go up against any other in the majors, perhaps even as the best of them all.