We’re not even a month into the offseason and it feels like I’ve already written at least a dozen posts about the bullpen. I (and others) have written about what the Red Sox need in the bullpen. I (and others) have written about what the Red Sox already have in the bullpen. I (and others) have looked at some specific targets for the Red Sox bullpen. It’s an odd topic to be focused this much on, even if I acknowledge some of it is because of my obsession with this particular aspect of the game.
Go to any Red Sox website and look through the last three or four weeks of their archives. It’s a good bet that you’ll find a jarring number of posts about the bullpen. The reason, of course, is that this will be one of the biggest areas of focus for Dave Dombrowski and the rest of the front office this winter. They need a lot of help, to put it nicely.
We all expect them to go after a big target or three, whether that means someone like Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel or that means a Darren O’Day or Tyler Clippard. We expect them to pursue multiple arms they can trust late in games. While that will obviously be a huge help, great bullpens can’t be completely built from players with a strong track record, given the volatility of most relievers. As strange as it sounds, it’s what makes the position so interesting. If you look around the league, the best bullpens get key contributions from players who came virtually out of nowhere. Wade Davis was a throw-in back-end starter a few years ago, now he's the best reliever in baseball. Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller were two disappointing starting pitching prospects, now they form the best one-two punch in baseball. There are these kind of examples all around the league. If the Red Sox want a good bullpen for the entirety of 2016, they’ll need a wildcard to pop up later in the year after injury and/or underperformance pushes out at least one of their established arms. Luckily, they have a few options already in the organization.
If you remember correctly, Brandon Workman was expected to be a part of Boston’s bullpen in 2015 before that plan was ruined by an elbow injury. Although they tried to go with a rehab-based plan to get him back, he would eventually undergo Tommy John surgery in June. Because of this, he probably won’t pitch at all in the first half. However, that sets him up to be the perfect candidate for a second-half run. Although his days as a starter are done, we’ve seen that his stuff will play up in the bullpen in his previous experiences. To wit, he has struck out 7.4 batters per nine innings as a starter versus 10.9 as a reliever. While he’s also given up plenty of hard contact — opponents have a .201 ISO against Workman as a reliever — the potential is there for him to be a very good bullpen piece. As a bonus, he has some experience from the 2013 stretch run, so if the Red Sox find themselves in contention again in 2016, he won’t be entirely out of his element. The odds are against him being a late-innings reliever this year, but Workman certainly has the potential to take that out-of-nowhere jump.
Here we have another player who was supposed to be a big piece of the 2015 bullpen. In fact, Varvaro made nine outings with the Red Sox this year, something I completely forgot happened. He didn’t perform very well in this time, then he was surprisingly designated for assignment and claimed by the Cubs. Of course, it was at that point his flexor tendon injury was discovered and he was sent back to Boston for surgery and rehab. He expects to be ready for rehab soon, and should be close to full strength in free agency. However, he’s arbitration eligible for the first time this winter. So, there’s a chance he won’t be back in 2016, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s either tendered a deal or they agree to a minor-league contract with an opt-out option. Either way, he can be someone who builds back up their strength in the first half before exploding in the second. If you remember correctly, he was impressive with the Braves, pitching to a 2.74 ERA and a 3.36 FIP in 2013-2014. Like Workman, the chances that Varvaro does this aren’t good, but that’s the nature of wildcards.
If I had it my way, Kelly wouldn’t qualify for this distinction since he’d be in the bullpen from the start of the year. Even if I have my worries about how his transition will be, it’s clear to me that putting him back in the rotation shouldn’t be an option. However, it seems the organization still views him as a starter, and I’m expecting him to begin the year in either Boston’s or Pawtucket’s rotation. Even if this happens, I expect the team to come to their senses by the All-Star break, giving the Red Sox a chance at their own Wade Davis, or something resembling that. The hope is he’ll get a chance to do so from the start of the season, but if not, Kelly could be a big second-half piece of the 2016 bullpen.
When you look around at the best relievers in baseball, almost all of them are former starters, something that I alluded to at the top of this post. Because of that, relief prospects are virtually nonexistent. In Pat Light, the Red Sox have something close to that, even if he’s not the type of guy who will sniff lists this offseason. This past season was his first as a reliever, and we saw right away that his stuff plays up in shorter stints. After struggling through the organization in the rotation, he dominated Portland to start the year, striking out more than a batter per inning and putting up a 2.43 ERA.
On top of that, all the scouting reports gave him glowing reviews. Then, he struggled mightily with control after a promotion to Pawtucket and was somewhat forgotten. He’ll start the year back at triple-A next year, but with a strong performance he could find himself in the bullpen by midseason. There is plenty of potential for him to falter after a promotion again, but he has the stuff to take a huge step into a late-inning role at some point next year.
The Red Sox are going to need a ton of help from a lot of different areas in their bullpen next season. They’ll need a few established arms to be sure, but they’ll also need some wildcards to step up when needed. Individually, Workman, Varvaro, Kelly and Light are all likely to be mediocre middle relievers in 2016. However, if someone is going to come out of nowhere to be a contributor in the second half, these are the four most likely candidates, with Kelly likely being the best bet.