clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Can the Red Sox salvage anything from this bullpen?

New, 21 comments

The Sox pen has been the major weak point for the team in the season's second half.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox have one of the worst bullpens in the league. Maybe the only reason they don't have the worst bullpen is thanks to the efforts of closer Koji Uehara: before his season ended prematurely, Koji produced a 2.23 ERA in 40-1/3 innings. His performance alone lowers the ERA of Boston's bullpen by 0.22 runs, and even with his efforts included, it's still 4.42 for the year, and they rank fourth-worst in the league in runs allowed per game, behind only the Rockies, Phillies, and Tigers.

Junichi Tazawa had his season ended early after he struggled to maintain his usual effectiveness, so even he hasn't been able to help all year long as usual. Both of those pitchers will be back in 2016, and both should be effective once again, but is there anything the Red Sox can salvage from their current bullpen?

Pitchers like Tommy Layne still have options, and while he's a mess around right-handers, he's faced them far too often this year in large part due to the lack of effective alternatives in the pen. Layne could work as a lefty specialist or an up-and-down guy who splits his time between Pawtucket and filling in for whomever the more legitimate lefty specialist is, maybe someone who hasn't allowed righties to bat .310/.404/.479 against him over parts of four seasons. Layne is salvageable in the sense he can be retained, but he's not exciting: he's depth.

Ross has his ups and downs, sure, and isn't going to be a dominant force, but he's the kind of mid-range pen option the Sox have lacked for much of the year

That's better than Craig Breslow, who should be allowed to walk away as a free agent this time. Breslow was re-signed in part because the lefty options were lacking for the Sox, but he hasn't even been able to retire his fellow southpaws this season. He's 34, and no longer has a clear role -- it's time to part ways with Breslow, as good as he once was.

Similarly, Alexi Ogando just isn't the pitcher he used to be with the Rangers. Ogando used to be a reliever who could also start, and was pretty solid at both. His health doesn't allow for starting as an option anymore, however, and he's not quite talented enough of a reliever these days to have much value in that role alone. He's been too homer-prone in 2015, and it's kept him from being of much use to the Sox. They are better off cutting ties and finding someone new for the roster spot than they are giving him a second chance.

There is a former Ranger worth keeping, however, and that's Robbie Ross. The lefty is under team control through 2018, and while his first two months were rough, he's been fairly productive since. Ross owns a 3.54 ERA since June, with 38 strikeouts in 40 innings of work, all against 13 walks. He has his ups and downs, sure, and isn't going to be a dominant force or anything, but he's the kind of mid-range pen option the Sox have lacked for much of the year: having him be this guy for a full season now that he's seemingly worked his way back to usefulness would be helpful in 2016.

Jean Machi was a project the Red Sox were in a position to take a chance on, and while his strikeouts and walks have looked fine enough, he has allowed four homers in 20 innings of work, and was no better in the NL to begin the year. Similarly, Ryan Cook is a pitcher the Sox should keep trying to fix at Triple-A Pawtucket, but nothing he has done in the majors this year suggests he's a piece for the 2016 team. Like with Ross, he's under team control for a while, so there is no rush, at least.

Matt Barnes has just been too hittable, and often in ways that result in homers for the opposition. He has the stuff to be a bullpen piece longterm, but as for the short-term? Shipping him back to Pawtucket to work out of this role and figure out what he has to seems like the most sensible plan, barring a major change in style and sequencing next spring.

Noe Ramirez and Heath Hembree both look like they can be big-league relievers of varying qualities, but neither is going to provide much of anything if they can't stop giving up home runs. Ramirez has dealt with this before in the minors and adapted to it, and Hembree has a decent track record as a relief prospect, so there is hope still. Like with Barnes, though, and Jonathan Aro, they should probably be figuring all of that out in the International League, rather than in games that count.

So, this pen basically, for 2016 purposes, has part-timer and LOOGY Tommy Layne and mid-relief option Robbie Ross. They have plenty of arms who might make themselves useful by mid-season next year, or maybe earlier if they can take steps forward during this offseason of video and conversations with the coaching staff, but as for reliable pieces, this Sox pen is lacking outside of Uehara and Tazawa.

They might be able to create some new relievers out of pieces who are already in the organization, and that could go a long way towards helping matters. Joe Kelly is the most obvious candidate for a conversion, but Rich Hill is someone else the Sox should look into keeping, using him as a lefty out of the pen who can also start a game if necessary. There is also Brian Johnson, whose 2015 was ended early due to an elbow injury. If the Sox want to have Johnson in the majors without committing him to a major workload, he could also have success out of the pen thanks to his four-pitch repertoire and ability to command his pitches.

The Red Sox bullpen in 2016 isn't already a failure: what we've mostly learned is that it needs to move on in order to succeed. Uehara, Tazawa, Ross, and then maybe Layne are the only pieces the Sox should bring with them into 2016: everyone else needs to either be set loose or sent down, with conversions, signings, and maybe a trade or two filling out the rest.

As the end of 2015 has shown us, this Red Sox team is capable of great things, and they haven't even fully solved the rotation or had Dustin Pedroia around for all of it. However, it's also shown us that the bullpen is the most significant obstacle in Boston's path to success, so this is an area new President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski -- and whoever his first general manager is -- will need to give significant attention to.