Red Sox among the many getting no relief
Too many clubs having problems with their bullpens at the outset
Before the season even began, the Reds and Royals lost Ryan Madson and Joakim Soria to Tommy John surgery; Boston lost its closer, Andrew Bailey, for at least half the season with a thumb injury; Washington's Drew Storen went to the disabled list with an elbow issue; and Tampa Bay's Kyle Farnsworth was also disabled, with a back concern.
The Red Sox had allowed Jonathan Papelbon to walk rather than approach Philadelphia's four-year, $50 million offer, despite his six brilliant full seasons with a 2.30 ERA, 475-98 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 219 saves. The idea was to take Daniel Bard and put him into a rotation that had four quality starts in September's 7-20 "perfect storm" and replace him with Bailey and Mark Melancon.
Then Bailey got hurt, so Alfredo Aceves became the closer. On Opening Day in Detroit, Melancon and Aceves combined to allow the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning. On Sunday, Aceves gave up a three-run homer in the ninth inning to Miguel Cabrera that wiped out a 10-7 lead, then in the 13th, Melancon blew a two-run lead on Alex Avila's two-run homer that gave the Tigers a 13-12 win. It was the first time the Tigers had rallied from three runs and two runs down from the ninth inning on since The Great Depression, in 1929.
Boston's situation is complex, worsened by the fact that its first 15 games are against the Tigers, Blue Jays, Rays, Rangers and Yankees. Until and if Daisuke Matsuzaka returns in June, the Sox need Bard starting, especially with the unknown in Felix Doubront. The fact is in their second and third games, after Jon Lester battled Justin Verlander to a tie, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz allowed 14 runs.
No one around the Red Sox wants to hear about the past, but starting with last Sept. 2, in 29 games their starters are 4-14 with an 8.29 ERA and five quality starts. From the day they arrived in Fort Myers, Fla., Lester and Beckett addressed the past by confronting the fact that the reason their team didn't make the playoffs wasn't chicken, beer, the individual mandate, Whitey Bulger or other entitlements. It was starting pitching.
Bobby Valentine successfully pinch-ran and had Darnell McDonald steal in the ninth inning of the opener while down a run and ordered a successful hit-and-run with Mike Aviles in the 11th inning on Sunday, but when two of your three best starters give up 14 runs between them and your two closers have a combined ERA of 63.00 ... maybe cousin Jason Bulger wouldn't be such a bad idea to keep things in line.
The Red Sox are hardly alone. In the last week of Spring Training, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty was burning up the phone lines looking for bullpen depth. The Braves put in a call to Chad Durbin. The Cubs signed Shawn Camp and were sifting for more help. By the end of the first weekend, a minute sample size which for most teams consisted of three games, there were 10 bullpens with ERAs between 5.14 and 11.57 (the Cubs). The Brewers and Red Sox were 7.84. The Indians lost a ninth-inning lead and two extra-inning games to the Jays.
Now, this is a very small sample size, and bullpens are, to say the least, unpredictable and improbable. The White Sox's new kids on the block, with screwballing Hector Santiago saving Saturday's game and the impressive rookie Addison Reed, held the Rangers to a .120 average and didn't allow a run in 7 1/3 innings out of the 'pen in their first series. The Pirates hadn't allowed a run in nine innings. The D-backs got 10 2/3 innings and three saves against the Giants. The Mets swept the Braves and their revamped bullpen also had three saves and while allowing one run in 10 innings. Fernando Rodney saved two games for the Rays against the Yankees.
In a few days, aberrations happen. Mariano Rivera blew a save, which you're not going to see repeated many times.
Oh yes. And the last time both the Red Sox and Yankees started a season 0-3 was 1966, when Boston finished ninth and New York 10th in the 10-team American League (cue the "Impossible Dream" music).
If you are the Cubs, you can mix and match and dabble and look in every barrel to find bullpen pieces, because you're not expected to win. If you're the Reds, you think about where Aroldis Chapman fits in the first and second halves of the season, and count on pulling what the Cardinals pulled last season in reconstructing a bullpen on the fly.
In Boston's case, you may have to put Aaron Cook in the rotation and hope his three-year .316 average and .857 OPS against lefties is behind him, then hope Bard, Andrew Miller, Franklin Morales and Rich Hill find their niches in the bullpen well enough to allow Valentine to have more than three non-pitchers on the bench every day.
But it is alarming that here it is four days into the season, and the Major League average bullpen has an ERA of 4.00. It makes you wonder what it will be like in mid-July, with 90-something humidity and two day-night doubleheaders on the horizon. You just have to hope that your bullpen isn't going to face Cabrera and Prince Fielder.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.