As much as the starting rotation has garnered the lion's share of attention over the first couple months of the offseason, the bullpen has about as many questions surrounding it. In fact, the only man who seemed certain to be a significant contributor, Daniel Bard, is now tentatively slated to start the year stretched out as a starter. No, the bullpen is anything but a sure thing.
Past Daniel Bard, the man that Red Sox fans were most confident in was probably Alfredo Aceves, but that particular ex-Yankee will have to prove that 2011 was no fluke next year. While his ability to induce weak contact with junkballs is certainly to his credit, a .231 BABIP isn't terribly sustainable for any player even in front of a defense like Boston's. To rely on him for anything more than the seventh is to be too trusting.
Then there's Franklin Morales. The man did a good job for Boston while he was with them, to be sure, putting up a 3.69 ERA over 32 innings of work, but the lefty is regularly wild, and this was his best year in a long time. It was just last season that he put up an ERA over 6.00, and even the year before his 4.50 mark was nothing special. One needs to look no farther than Matt Albers--also presumably a part of this unit--to see that a half season doesn't prove too much.
The guys who could prove the biggest surprises are also the ones from whom the fan base can really expect the least. Bobby Jenks and Felix Doubront both have it in them to be valuable contributors to the bullpen, but struggled through all of 2011 due to fitness and injury concerns. Of the two, Doubront honestly seems like the most likely to contribute given Jenks' surgery, but if the former White Sox closer can make his way back to solid form, his ceiling is noticeably higher than Doubront's.
Still, of all the things you see here, there's not one sure thing, and that's where Mark Melancon comes in. Does Mark Melancon have the longest track record? No, but despite the high ERA in 2010, he's been quite good over his last two years. He strikes out plenty of batters, has brought his walks down, and kept the ball on the ground fairly well last year. He won't be as good as he was last year, now that he's returning to the A.L. East, but he's a reliable bullpen arm who the Sox can be relatively sure about, and if all goes well, he'll be just that for the next five years.