Many might contend it’s a bit early to start dissecting the dynamics of the Red Sox’ 2011 bullpen, but with Boston all but eliminated from playoff contention, the Nation needs something positive to even begin keeping the faith through an extended offseason.

Throughout 2010, the Fenway Faithful have endured disturbing seasons from Ramon Ramirez, Manny Delcarmen (traded), and Hideki Okajima. While Daniel Bard, Jonathan Papelbon, and Scott Atchison have performed admirably, if not excellently, the rest of the bullpen has laid goose egg upon goose egg.

Of particular concern to the Red Sox has been Okajima‘s demise. After posting ERAs of 2.22, 2.61, and 3.39 during his first three seasons, the Japanese lefty has dropped a 5.11 mark on the 2010 campaign. Opponents are batting .337 against Okajima, whose slow decline has suddenly snowballed into swift disaster. Okajima will likely be released this winter.

Although Papelbon, Bard, and Atchison will probably be joined by a usually effective Tim Wakefield in the 2011 bullpen, Boston will have a conspicuous dirth of southpaws. Pursuing lefty free agent Scott Downs seems wise, but should that pursuit fall short or prove too expensive, the Red Sox do have internal options.

Enter Dustin Richardson.

I recently visited Newton, Kansas, where Richardson grew up, and I talked for a long time with some close friends of his family. From what I heard, Richardson is a great young man, and the people of Newton couldn’t be prouder of what he’s already achieved in professional baseball.

Setting aside a rocky outing on September 7 against the division-leading Tampa Bay Rays, Richardson has been exceptional in well-chosen appearances this season. Without that one appearance last week, in which Richardson surrendered three earned runs in an uncharacteristically bad game, Richardson has put up a 2.07 ERA over 13 Major League innings.

Richardson’s June call-up from AAA Pawtucket came as no surprise to Sox enthusiasts.

In 2009, the Kansas native posted a 2.70 ERA with an 11.37 K/9 ratio for AA Portland before advancing to Pawtucket and improving to a 1.69 ERA and a 13.50 K/9 ratio. Over 44 innings with the 2010 Pawtucket Red Sox, the 26-year-old Richardson delivered a 2.66 ERA and an 11.45 K/9 ratio.

Bringing up Richardson to fill a hole left by an ineffective Scott Schoeneweis and a diminished Hideki Okajima made perfect sense. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late.

However, as long as he keeps his edge, Richardson should receive an invitation to 2011 spring training and earn a regular spot in the MLB bullpen.

In fact, with or without Downs, Richardson should be a full-time fixture on next season’s 25-man roster. If I’m right, the people of Newton will have big reasons to be even prouder of Richardson come next April.

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