Amid open season on closers for Red Sox, Tazawa is up next
The Red Sox began the season with not one but two proven closers in their bullpen in Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, but five weeks into the season, both have already hit the disabled list. Now it appears that manager John Farrell will have to dig a little deeper into his depleted bullpen to find a ninth inning man, as he has designated Junichi Tazawa his likely go-to guy.
That decision has come about after a particularly rough night. Hours after Bailey was placed on the DL due to a biceps strain on Monday, Hanrahan blew a save opportunity in that night’s game against the Twins, and after facing two more batters, left with a forearm strain. The Red Sox won in 11 innings thanks to a walkoff double by Stephen Drew, but that didn’t magically heal Hanrahan, who underwent an MRI on Tuesday and was placed on the DL for his second stint of the season. He was out from April 14 through April 30 due to a right hamstring strain, and had made just three appearances before returning from whence he came.
The injuries have set up an opportunity for Tazawa to show what he can do in the role. Since returning to the majors last year following a protracted comeback from April 2010 Tommy John surgery, the 27-year-old righty has been dominant, with a 1.70 ERA and 9.7 strikeouts per nine — against just 1.2 walks — in 58 1/3 innings. Throwing primarily a four-seam fastball that averages 94.6 mph, a splitter that averages 89.0 mph (mostly against lefties), and a curve, he has been effective against hitters on both sides of the plate. Righties have hit .229/.270/.347 in 127 PA in that span, lefties .219/.240/.302 in 100 PA.
Bailey, you may recall, was supposed to be Boston’s closer last year after being acquired in a December 2011 deal with the A’s — the one that cost them Josh Reddick — but he didn’t make his season debut until Aug. 14 due to an injury to the ulnar collateral ligament of his right thumb. While he notched six saves late in the year, he also blew two ninth-inning opportunities and finished with a swollen 7.04 ERA in 15 1/3 innings. Thus he completed his third straight year with less than 50 major league innings due to injuries, a frustrating trend that has kept him from building on the 2009 AL Rookie of the Year award he won with Oakland.
Because of that shaky track record, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington made a deal to acquire Hanrahan from the Pirates in December 2012. Hanrahan was almost instantly was designated the closer to head off any potential controversy. He converted his first three save opportunities in early April, but after yielding two homers and five runs in a blown save against the Orioles on April 10, he faced just two more batters, walking a pair of Rays on April 13, before hitting the DL with the hamstring injury. That opened the door for Bailey, who after blowing his first save chance on April 15, managed to garner the win nonetheless, and then converted five straight save chances before his biceps injury left him unavailable and forced him to hand the baton back to Hanrahan.
Overall, the Red Sox have the AL’s best record at 21-11, but the bullpen has been their shakiest area. The unit’s 3.98 ERA ranks 10th in the league, and its 1.3 homers per nine 13th, though much of the damage on both fronts has been done by a less-than-healthy Hanrahan and knuckleballer Steven Wright; take away those two and the bullpen ERA drops to 3.08, the homer rate to 0.9. Also on a positive note, their relievers rank second with their 10.7 strikeouts per nine and second with their 17 percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score. And in case anyone was worried that Alfredo Aceves might get a shot at the ninth inning again, he took his 8.66 ERA and charming persona to Triple-A Pawtucket in late April.