Generally speaking, there is no such thing as a safe bullpen. Relievers are unpredictable by nature, and a group of them is even harder to predict. The Red Sox bullpen fits this description as well. They could be very good if everything falls into place, but there are also plenty of scenarios where this unit blows a string of games this summer. It looks like they are satisfied with the current group of arms they have in place, but should they be? There are a couple names available right now that almost certainly won’t be walking through that door, but Boston should at least consider bringing in Rafael Soriano and/or Brian Matusz.
This one is a bit more of a luxury than a necessity. Earlier in the offseason, I wrote on these very pages that the Red Sox do not need another right-handed reliever.* I’ve flip-flopped on this one. Sue me. Koji Uehara is entering his age-40 season, and is likely going to begin the year on the disabled list. Losing him severely weakens the back of the bullpen. Edward Mujica and Junichi Tazawa are both fine, but they both have their blemishes. As for the third guy in this group, they have a few options to step up. Alexi Ogando, Anthony Varvaro, Brandon Workman and Matt Barnes are all possibilities, but all have some risk. Ogando is the most intriguing, but he’s coming off a bad, injury-riddled season. Varvaro is solid, but he works more as a ground ball specialist than an overpowering back-end arm. Workman and Barnes still have too much to prove to take that job.
*They traded for Anthony Varvaro like five minutes later, because of course they did.
With Soriano, though, they’d have a proven commodity who could presumably be had for cheap. He’s not the guy he was five or ten years ago, but he’s still proven to be a very capable back-end guy. He’s coming off a season in Washington where he tossed 62 innings with a 3.19 ERA and 3.08 FIP. Over the last three years, he’s pitched to a 2.84 ERA and a 3.36 FIP while appearing in an average of 67 games. He could serve as a ninth inning option than either Mujica or Tazawa if/when Uehara is out, and would be a strong setup man when the closer is available. Given how long it’s taken him to sign, one could assume it’ll only take one year and a modest salary to sign him. It’s something they don’t necessarily need, but they could afford it and it would undoubtedly add a bit more certainty to an uncertain unit.
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While Soriano would just be a luxury, Matusz could be downright necessary. I’ve made this point a few times this winter, but it’s worth mentioning again. The Red Sox could very much use a good left-handed reliever. Heading into the season, they’re relying on a group of Craig Breslow, Robbie Ross and Tommy Layne. Breslow is coming off a horrid year and has watched his strikeout numbers plummet the last two years. Ross is also coming off a rough year, though to his credit he’s pitched well as a reliever in his career. Layne performed well in a small sample size last year, but he’s a 30-year-old quad-A player who is better served as a depth piece than a prominent bullpen arm.
Matusz, on the other hand, has been outstanding for the Orioles after flaming out as a pitching prospect. He’s something of a poor man’s Andrew Miller. Since shifting to to the bullpen full time in 2013, he’s put up a 3.51 ERA with a 3.46 FIP, a 24 percent strikeout-rate and a 7.6 percent walk-rate. Even better, he’s shown himself to be a true shutdown pitcher against left-handed bats, something that can’t be said for the current lefties in the bullpen.
The problem with Matusz is that he’d have to come from an intradivisional trade, something that’s always hard to pull off. He’s a good enough arm that teams from across the league will be interested -- the Mets have reportedly made calls about him -- so Baltimore would be well within their rights to ask for a little extra to make the deal with Boston. If the price is right, it's a no-brainer.
I would be very surprised if the Red Sox bring in either of these guys at this point. It appears they’re comfortable with their bullpen and the depth. That can go downhill very quickly, though. What if Uehara is forced to spend more time on the disabled list than initially anticipated? What if Ogando quickly flames out and Matt Barnes’ stuff doesn’t play up to major-league opponents? What if Breslow, Ross and Layne don’t provide enough incentive against teams loading up their late-game lineups with left-handed bats? Right now Rafael Soriano and Brian Matusz look like luxuries, but they would fills spots that could end up being holes sooner rather than later.