Say what you will about the length of a baseball season, but one of the things it does is lay bare a team's strengths -- and weaknesses. Talent emerges and flaws are exposed over the long haul, and no amount of smoke and mirrors can hide it.
When it comes to the Red Sox' bullpen, the smoke has been blown away and the mirrors have cracked. The weaknesses that we've seen throughout the season overall, and on this road trip in particular, were never more evident than in Thursday's horrific 4-3 loss in Detroit.
John Farrell is on the griddle today for using Junichi Tazawa rather than Brad Ziegler in the bottom of the eighth after the Sox had scored twice in the top of the inning and taken a 3-1 lead. And, on the face of it, the criticism is justified. Tazawa faced three batters and all of them reached base -- Ian Kinsler singled, Erick Aybar doubled and Miguel Cabrera singled, cutting Boston's lead to 3-2 and leaving runners on first and third with nobody out. Ziegler tried to clean up the mess but couldn't do it, allowing a game-tying single to Victor Martinez and, eventually, a bases-loaded walk to Andrew Romine that forced in the winning run.
But lost amid the hysteria is why Farrell went to Tazawa instead of Ziegler.
Ziegler has exceptionally poor career nunbers against Kinsler (5-for-11) and Cabrera (6-for-9). Aybar is left-handed and, like most right-handed submariners, Ziegler has problems with lefties (they're hitting .289 agaimst him this year, with 15 walks in 90 at-bats). So Farrell had his reasons not to turn to Ziegler in that spot.
What of his other options? Well, Matt Barnes, who threw nearly 40 pitches Tuesday in Baltimore in relief of the injured Eduardo Rodriguez, was unavailable. Robbie Ross Jr. had already pitched. Craig Kimbrel was being held back to save the game in the ninth. Fernando Abad has been an utter disaster. And the recently recalled Heath Hembree has been even worse against lefties (.418 batting average, 1.067 OPS) than Ziegler.
Sensing a pattern? There's a laundry list of excuses for every pitcher in this bullpen.
It’s great to have one or two pitchers who are good “match-up guys”, like Mike Myers in 2004 and Javier Lopez in 2007. But look at 2013. That Red Sox bullpen had success thanks to three relievers -- Tazawa, Craig Breslow and Koji Uehara -- who could throw against lefties or righties at any point in tight games, for an inning or two.
This bullpen, in contrast, is loaded with guys who can only pitch against certain batters or in certain situations over a limited amount of innings.
Farrell can get criticized up and down for his decisions, but the Sox bullpen has been built on the principle of having one guy for every scenario. In a perfect world, that’s great. But baseball -- much like life -- is inconsistent and unpredictable.
What’s happened instead is the bullpen has become so compartmentalized that using it properly can be paralyzing. There's no room for error.
Right now, Barnes is the only one who can pitch in any circumstance -- late or early, short or long, clean inning or bases loaded -- but that affects his availability on a consistent basis. The long appearance he made Tuesday, for instance, made him unavailable Thursday.
Ziegler’s filling the set-up roles of both Tazawa and Uehara, who's sidelined because of a strained pectoral muscle.
Kimbrel can really only pitch the ninth -- which is all he should be called on to do, with an occasional exception -- and he’s had control problems, too.
Hembree was a solid option earlier in the year, but he lost his job after a tough run in July. Not to mention his general struggles against left-handed hitters.
In case you missed it, Tazawa and Abad have been catastrophes.
And Uehara’s not trotting out to the mound any time soon. Even if he was, the Red Sox wouldn’t be getting the 2013 version. They’d be getting a 41-year-old who wasn’t all that trustworthy before he got hurt.
(Ross, conversely, has made a case to be given a larger role. He’s come through in recent pivotal situations against both righties and lefties. His control is an issue at times but he gives you a chance, so the Red Sox need to start viewing him differently.)
If Clay Buchholz moves back to the bullpen when Steven Wright returns, that could be a big help. It would give Barnes the chance to move into more of a set-up role -- or give Boston two arms that can work more than one inning.
Buchholz could easily be part of the solution, as could Jonathan Papelbon. Maybe even Joe Kelly, too. None of them are limited by lefty/righty matchups, and both Buchholz and Kelly can get stretched out.
Say what you want about Kelly or Papelbon, but at least they’re something different from Abad and Tazawa.
The reason the Sox need some different faces goes beyond performance. Farrell needs to shed the this-guy-can-only-pitch-in-this-situation/that-guy-can-only-pitch-in-that-situation straightjacket he's been wearing. The Sox should practice what they’ve been preaching to Buchholz: Simplify everything, stop trying to be cute.
They might be surprised by what happens.
Nick Friar can be followed on Twitter: @ngfriar