I’ve talked about the Red Sox lackluster left-handed reliever situation so many times over the last few months that even I’m getting annoyed. I’m not going to get too deep into why I’m so worried about the situation again; if you’re interested in my thoughts, search my post history and about 94 percent of my posts will touch on this subject. All I’ll say right now is it’s an issue, and it doesn’t appear to be one the Red Sox are interested in fixing with players outside of the organization.
To be clear, that's not necessarily a bad thing. These types of players can appear in many different ways throughout a season. It’s not like they’re waiting for an ace-like pitcher to come at a reasonable price (oh wait). Either way, I anticipate this becoming an issue sooner rather than later. Luckily, the solution may have been under our nose the entire time.
Let’s go through a scenario that we may be living in a few months. The rotation has been solid, though a couple of holes have opened ever wider than they already are. Whether because of health or performance, the Red Sox need a couple of mid-to-back-end arms to get them through a month or two. Assuming Steven Wright takes one spot, one of Brian Johnson, Eduardo Rodriguez or Henry Owens takes the other one. Alex Skillin already outlined why Johnson may be the best option to help this year, so let’s slot him in. Now, if one or both of the other lefties in Pawtucket are tearing through the International League, what do you do with them?
Rather than keeping them in the minors just to give them more starts, it would be prudent to place whichever looks more advanced into the bullpen in a role that could be the difference between a playoff appearance and golfing in October. In a move that would kill two birds with one stone, the Red Sox would not only be enhancing their playoff probabilities, they’d also be giving a promising young pitcher some valuable major-league experience.
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Before I go into the implications for the team, I’ll look at yanking a top prospect from a starting role to a relief one. This is something that worries people, and historically the Red Sox have not gone this route. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are two of the team’s more recent top pitching prospects, and neither spent significant time in the bullpen at any point. Other teams have done things differently, however, and it’s worked out for them.
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The most notable young arm who took a bit stop in the bullpen before becoming a successful starter is Chris Sale. The White Sox current ace spent his first two years in the majors coming out of the bullpen in Chicago. After dominating as a reliever, he was converted back into a starter and has since become one of the truly elite arms in the game. Guys like Jeff Samardzija and C.J. Wilson fit this mold as well. David Price doesn’t fit quite to the same extent, since he was a late call-up in 2008, but we all have vivid memories of his dominance out of the bullpen in the postseason that year.
It seems common to point to Daniel Bard as a reason not to try to convert anyone from a reliever to a starter, but that’s a poor choice for two reasons. For one, pointing to one bad case and calling it a day is silly. More importantly, Bard was a reliever from 2008-2011. I’m not talking about using Rodriguez or Owens out of the bullpen for the next four years. It’s huge to get players comfortable pitching in the major leagues, and having the ability to use them in a way that puts them in the best situation to succeed, i.e. as the top lefty in the bullpen, can make the transition that much easier.
Both Rodriguez and Owens could very well be the best internal options here, too. Breslow, Ross, and Layne all have their various issues, but the biggest one is that none of them possesses put away stuff. The two young lefties have shown an ability to rack up strikeouts at the minor-league level. These numbers obviously don’t always translate to the majors, but the scouting reports back up the numbers. Even if they’re not striking out more than a batter an inning as a reliever, they have a much better shot of going on an Andrew Miller type run than anyone else in the organization.
A lot is going to change between now and June, and this may not be as big of an issue as I’m making it out to be. It worries me, though. With the lack of a dominant lefty for the end of games, the Red Sox could find themselves blowing a good amount of leads. Especially when there’s a decent chance their starters won’t be taking them deep into games more often than not. Having guys like Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens could be huge for this reason. Both possess the upside that no other left-hander in the organization does. Not only will it help the team, but it will also give valuable major-league experience in a way that has proven successful. The Red Sox haven’t done it much in the past, and it’s a strategy that worries some, but putting one of the top pitching prospects in the bullpen for a good portion of the season could be the best move for the present and the future.