Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Boston Red Sox [Print without images]

Monday, February 13, 2012
10Q/10D: Will 'pen survive without Pap?

By Gordon Edes



(Editor's note: This is the fifth installment in our "10 Questions in 10 Days" series leading into the Boston Red Sox's spring training, which officially kicks off Feb. 19, when pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report.)

BOSTON -- The Red Sox master plan has gathered dust now -- this was 2005 -- but the idea was that the team’s closer of the future would be a college star playing in New York City.

It took seven years, but it has finally come to fruition, even though it didn’t quite work out the way the Sox had sketched it.

Andrew Bailey
Can Andrew Bailey handle being a closer in the American League East? And will his elbow hold up?
Back then, the Sox had planned on grooming Craig Hansen, the St. John’s star who was the team’s first-round draft pick that summer, was rushed to the big leagues, and is now casting about for a job after unmet expectations and a series of injuries put him on the unemployed list.

Carrying the torch instead is Andrew Bailey, star pitcher for Staten Island’s Wagner College and 16th-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers, whose draft position plummeted after he underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery that spring. The Brewers did not sign Bailey, who stayed in school and went back into the draft, and this time was taken in the sixth round by the Oakland Athletics.

Three years later, he was an All-Star and rookie of the year, repeated as an All-Star a year later and this winter was traded to the Red Sox, who bypassed numerous other free-agent options to anoint the 27-year-old New Jersey native the successor to Jonathan Papelbon.

That move is fraught with risk, namely because Papelbon last season re-established himself as one of the game’s elite closers and because Bailey’s elbow issues did not end in college. Bailey has had elbow problems each of the last two springs, had surgery to clean out loose bodies in his elbow at the end of the 2010 season, and pitched just more than 90 innings combined in 2010 and ’11, after pitching 83 1/3 innings in his rookie season.

The Sox are satisfied Bailey is healthy, but he will be closely monitored, and the potential for a second-guess remains enormous. Most objective observers understand why the Sox weren’t willing to match the $50 million, four-year deal the Phillies gave Papelbon, but if Bailey struggles or breaks down, GM Ben Cherington will be beset with questions why he didn’t pursue other alternatives in a free-agent market teeming with closers (Heath Bell, Ryan Madson, Francisco Cordero, Jonathan Broxton and Joe Nathan).

The Sox also had an obvious in-house candidate to succeed Papelbon in Daniel Bard, but both the pitcher and the ballclub prefer to bring him to camp as a starter, though new manager Bobby Valentine has claimed the right to revisit that move before Opening Day. But given the lack of depth in the rotation, it appears that Bard is destined for the rotation (though colleague Joe McDonald disagrees in the video above). That would leave Bailey to prove that he can thrive in the crucible of the American League East.

Meanwhile, new setup man Mark Melancon prepped for his transition from the last-place Houston Astros by diving among great white sharks with his wife Mary Catherine off the coast of New Zealand this winter. Melancon, a former Yankee prospect, also is an alumnus of Tommy John surgery, but after being traded by the Bombers thrived in his role as Astros closer last season, averaging eight strikeouts per nine innings and developing a new cutter, which helped him keep the ball on the ground (55 percent groundball rate).

Is the Bailey-Melancon combo the equal of Papelbon-Bard? Tough to make that argument, which is one reason why Alfredo Aceves may return to the 'pen even though, like Bard, he is penciled in as a potential starter. Aceves gave the Sox 114 innings in a swing role in 2011, can pitch every day -- he pitched in each of the last four games of the season -- and is fearless, one reason why his name came up in internal discussions as a potential closer.

Bobby Jenks is an unknown quantity because of health issues (back, embolism) that cut his season short last year, and Matt Albers hit a wall after being a pleasant surprise during the season’s first four months. Franklin Morales projects as Valentine’s most dependable lefty out of the 'pen, but building bullpens, as Theo Epstein sadly acknowledged time and again, is one of the most unpredictable parts of a GM's job.

Coming Tuesday -- Health issues to watch in Fort Myers