- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
The best relief pitchers in the Boston Red Sox bullpen in 2012 were, believe it or not, right-handers Scott Atchison and Junichi Tazawa. Actually, that dynamic duo led all Red Sox pitchers in wins above replacement, which is hard to believe -- and a bit sad -- considering the staff included Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and even Alfredo Aceves, who saved 25 games. Atchison and Tazawa did perform well in their combined 95 1/3 innings, but still, their team-leading WAR was a strong indicator as to why the team finished in last place in the AL East.
The current Red Sox bullpen, if not the rotation, certainly seems much improved on paper, with enough choices that fantasy owners might be wondering about handcuff options and safe, valuable setup innings. After all, former Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Joel Hanrahan boasts consecutive All-Star game selections and 76 saves the past two seasons. Brittle Andrew Bailey is a former Rookie of the Year, with a career ERA of 2.47. Former Baltimore Orioles/Texas Rangers right-hander Koji Uehara boasts a sub-3.00 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in four seasons in the USA, and then there's former setup man/failed starter Daniel Bard, still a formidable presence. Plus, Aceves and Tazawa are back, and lefties Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller were solid in 2012. What could go wrong in 2013? There must be some drama!
Well, let's start with Hanrahan. I'm avoiding the top 10 closers in most leagues, opting to wait on saves since so many options, even the so-called safe ones, will be imploding, and Hanrahan is one of those names to be wary of. He's not the only closer switching teams and/or leagues, but in his case, it will be interesting to see him adjust from closing in the relative obscurity of Pittsburgh and the NL Central to the AL East and the Fenway Faithful who grew to dislike even the reliable Jonathan Papelbon. I won't really compare Hanrahan to Mark Melancon, but let's just say the stakes changed there, and a serviceable arm imploded. Hanrahan certainly brings his own blowup potential.
Hanrahan really struggled with his control the second half of 2012, and please don't correlate this to his teammates falling apart. Back in the day, he was wild, and we saw that fellow the final month-plus, when he totaled more walks than strikeouts from Sept. 1 on. Sure, his strikeout rate rose and the ERA and WHIP look splendid, but this is a fellow with a history of missing the strike zone, and he allowed eight home runs. On a team with myriad options, let's just say the leash will be short. Hanrahan misses my top 10 closers for precisely this reason, but I suspect plenty of fantasy owners/Red Sox fans will be expecting 50-plus saves and dominant numbers. I'd say more like 30 saves with a 3.50 ERA and 1.30 WHIP, still worth drafting, but riskier than most people realize. It wouldn't be a shock if Jason Grilli, the presumed closer left behind in Pittsburgh, delivers far more fantasy value.
Bailey's issue has always been health, not performance. I'm willing to write off his ugly 2012, as he missed most of the season with a thumb injury, then struggled when he was activated. Bailey has pitched a total of 106 big league innings over the past three seasons, which isn't much. He's hard to hit and a good strikeout option, but few closers seem as likely to hit the DL. Still, Bailey is next in line, if the Red Sox keep him around, and with his statistical track record he's a reasonable handcuff option, worth a late pick even in 10-team standard leagues.
For those looking for good innings, and the chance for saves in AL-only formats or deep mixed leagues, I'd recommend Uehara, Bard and yes, even Aceves. Uehara's numbers are fantastic. Durability and the occasional home run are issues, but the last three seasons, his WHIP has been .639, .723 and .955. In that span, covering 145 innings, he has fanned 183 hitters. Bard's career numbers as a reliever are strong, with more strikeouts than innings. Aceves imploded down the stretch last season, but from May through July he thrived, and in 2009 and 2011 he won 10 games each season as a long reliever (he made five starts those seasons), and he likely will be used that way in 2013.
Meanwhile, Hanrahan isn't the only closer switching teams and joining a potentially crowded crew.
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals: Give the Nationals credit for this surprise signing. With accomplished right-handers Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard already in place, the Nationals inked Soriano to a two-year deal. As with Boston's Bailey, plenty of fantasy owners in keeper leagues were dealt a jolt. How could Storen or Clippard get saves now? Soriano has experience in the NL East, walks are rarely a problem, and he joins a potential 100-win outfit, so he makes my top 10 closers with ease. Storen is the handcuff, but don't expect saves.
Ryan Madson, Los Angeles Angels: He missed 2012 after Tommy John surgery, and while there's no proof he'll leapfrog Ernesto Frieri for ninth-inning duties, manager Mike Scioscia has options. Frieri didn't allow a run over a two-month period after the trade from San Diego, but he has a propensity for walking batters, and when hitters make contact, it tends to go a long way, as he permitted nine home runs, seven in the second half. I think Madson leads the team in saves, though Frieri and Scott Downs have experience as well.
Joakim Soria, Rangers: Joe Nathan is coming off a tremendous season, and there's little reason for concern in 2013, but Soria, coming off his second Tommy John surgery, boasts a 2.40 career ERA with 160 saves. He's more interesting for keeper/dynasty formats, as he could miss half of 2013 recovering and Nathan could be elsewhere by 2014, so pay attention to this situation. Neftali Feliz could also factor in if he struggles as a starter upon his return from Tommy John surgery.