In Embree, 33, who re-upped with Boston for two years at $5.5 million in November, Epstein has the hard-throwing strikeout pitcher he coveted. Armed with a mid-90s fastball and a tumbling slider, Embree had a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and averaged 11.8 whiffs per nine innings last season. ( Pedro Martinez's 10.8 led all starting pitchers.) Though he has just six career saves, Embree has a closer's intensity, a demeanor he has sharpened during off-season workouts over the past two winters with Randy Myers, who was a closer for most of his 14-year career and three times was a league leader in saves. "When I enter a game, I feel it's on the line, no matter what inning it is," Embree says. "Anywhere from the seventh on, I want to throw hard for one inning and try to stop the game at that point. I would love to close games here. I think I would be stupid not to say I want that opportunity."
In the off-season Epstein, who believes the market generally overvalues relief pitchers, spent chastely on Mendoza (two years, $6.25 million), Timlin (one year, $1.85 million) and Chad Fox (one year, $500,000). The highest expectations among that group are for Mendoza, 30, a workhorse who often languished as a mop-up pitcher with the Yankees. He's a straight sinkerballer who pitched two or more innings in 22 of his 62 appearances last season. Timlin, 37, who is with his sixth team in seven years, has performed in every late-inning bullpen role. (The 32-year-old Fox, who missed most of 2002 nursing a sprained elbow ligament and rotator cuff pain in his right arm, has a great upside if healthy.)
Little has lots of options. He just has to be wary of how each pitcher handles being used in a variety of circumstances. "It's difficult to run a bullpen like that," says Baltimore Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, who had a closer-by-committee system with the Cleveland Indians in 1993 and '94. "I found that people perform better when their roles are defined."
Says Little, "In a perfect world, set is the way you'd like it, but with the personnel we have, most of them have never been in that position for an extended period." Little also believes the team's lack of an endgame intimidator will be counterbalanced by the unpredictability of his bullpen moves, allowing him to dictate matchups instead of allowing the opposition to plan for an expected setup-closer combination.
There is a sign on the clubhouse door at the Red Sox' minor league facility in Fort Myers, Fla., that reads NO EGOS ALLOWED ON FIELDS OR IN THE CLUBHOUSE, a maxim that Boston's bullpen gang of four has adopted. The absence of a ninth-inning gunslinger, entering a game to blaring heavy metal and leaving batters quaking, bothers nobody. "Whatever you might lose intangibly, you gain from a sense of unity and cohesion in the bullpen," Epstein says. "By forgoing conventional roles and individual stats and replacing them with the common goal of getting the last out and getting a win—not a save or hold but a win—I think that builds a certain esprit de corps in the bullpen."
Relievers of the Red Sox, unite! You have nothing to lose but your saves.
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