The baseball free agent season is here, and there are big names being thrown about on Yawkey Way. Big-name players like Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez could be leaving town, while even bigger names could be coming to Fenway.

Those marquee players will provide the baseball headlines in New England over the next few weeks, but don’t let that distract your attention from a rebuilding project that will be as important as anything GM Theo Epstein does this winter.

The bullpen was a major disappointment in 2010, and needs to be better if the Sox hope to get back to the playoffs.

Last year, Red Sox relievers posted a 4.24 ERA, the third worst of any team in the American League. They were successful in 67 percent of their save opportunities, the second worst in the league. The 63 homers allowed were the most in baseball, and the .743 OPS (on base plus slugging percentages) against them was the third worst in the league.

It all added up to 23 losses absorbed by the Sox bullpen in 2010. That’s six more losses than Yankee relievers recorded. Not coincidentally, the Sox finished six games behind New York in the standings.

Looking ahead, there are very few sure things among the group of returning Red Sox relievers.

In fact, you could say that Daniel Bard is the only reliever who definitely will be back in 2011.

Unless, of course, the Sox need to include him in a blockbuster trade for an Adrian Gonzalez-caliber player. Which they might.

Other than that, there’s no way to know who else returns.

Jonathan Papelbon had a down year by his standards. But he is still one of the top closers in the game. Trouble is, he is poised to make some $12 million or more through arbitration, a hefty sum for a pitcher who led the league in blown saves this season.

There are other ways to spend that tidy sum, an amount that would go a long way towards rebuilding the ‘pen.

The other men who call that tiny box in right field their Fenway home may have trouble holding onto their spots on the big-league roster next season.

Scott Atchison was a pleasant surprise last year, and had his option picked up last week.

But Hideki Okajima has become less effective each season, and is unlikely to return.

Beyond that, the two men who appeared in the most games out of the ‘pen for the Sox are already gone. Ramon Ramirez was traded in July and went on to win a World Series ring with San Francisco. Manny Delcarmen went a month later.

So who fills this void?

There could be some interesting options from within, with Michael Bowden and Felix Doubront the leading candidates. Tim Wakefield pitched quite well out of the bullpen down the stretch and may be back in that role.

There are plenty of options available. Rafael Soriano, Kerry Wood, Joaquin Benoit, Kevin Grett, and Grant Balfour are all on the market.

There is plenty of left-handed help available as well, in Scott Downs, Brian Fuentes and Pedro Feliciano.

There will be plenty of wheeling and dealing to prop up a sagging bullpen.

The moves might get overshadowed by a big-name move to beef up the offense, but they are worth keeping close tabs on.

 

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.