Dave Dombrowski has indicated that, with the acquistion of Tyler Thornburg, the Red Sox are likely done working on their bullpen for the offseason. That does not, however, make it entirely clear who their seven men will be when they break camp. Let’s break down how things look right now.
First, the locks. Craig Kimbrel, Tyler Thornburg, and Joe Kelly are your back three for right now. Kelly’s resume isn’t terribly long out of the bullpen, but given how easy it was to see him as a late-inning reliever before the transition, his late-season success after making the transition is plenty enough to earn a spot. Thornburg and Kimbrel are obvious.
Robbie Ross isn’t quite there, but he’s pretty close. He’s been quietly reliable for the Red Sox since coming over for Anthony Ranaudo, and while he technically has an option left, a combination of service time and simple loyalty make it unlikely the Red Sox will even try to send him to Triple-A.
Speaking of options, that’s what makes things really tricky for the remaining spots. Normally you’d probably pencil Matt Barnes in for one of those just because, well, he’s been around. He never left the team in 2016, even if he wasn’t exactly great in his 66 innings of work thanks to a truly ugly August. But Barnes, unlike a number of the other relievers, still has minor league options. Two, in fact. The Red Sox can safely store him in Triple-A and wait until injury or underperformance inevitably leads him back to the majors.
In fact, that’s particularly likely to be a factor in 2017 because it’s not just an injury in the bullpen that would require Barnes to return, but one to the rotation as well. That’s because as it stands, one of Boston’s (presumably seven) bullpen spots will be going to a starting pitcher. Whether it’s Clay Buchholz, Steven Wright, or maybe even Drew Pomeranz, the Red Sox have six starters who will open the season on the 25-man roster barring trades or injuries, and the obvious place to put that extra one is in the bullpen.
That has us down to two spots left, and still plenty of names without a slot. By my count, in fact, there are some seven men who could contend for them:
(And I guess Noe Ramirez but...nah)
To narrow things down, let’s cross the last three names off the list. Scott and Martin are Pawtucket guys to start the year, and Workman can still be stashed on the disabled list. Carson Smith should probably join them. Even though he’s one of the best arms mentioned in this whole piece, he is coming back from Tommy John Surgery, and the Sox can afford to give him time in a rehab assignment to get 100% up to speed.
That leaves Hembree, Elias, and Abad. Nobody likes Fernando Abad right now, but the Sox did tender him a contract, and there’s every reason to believe he can be an effective LOOGY. He was one, in fact, even after the trade. The Sox just didn’t use him that way.
Nobody likes Roenis Elias right now either, but he’s still a pitcher who had a couple solid (if below average) seasons in his first two years in the majors as a starting pitcher. That’s not the sort of player you just want to let go.
Of the three, Hembree is certainly the most popular one in Boston right now. He never seemed to completely earn the team’s trust in 2016, but he finished the year with a 2.65 ERA in 51 innings of work, and is up to 94 innings of 2.87 ERA ball now over the course of his career. His peripherals have, on occasion, left something to be desired, but they were fine in 2016. Now the Sox have to choose if they think he’s real or not, and it’s hard to look at his results and suggest that he’s the guy they should expose to waivers. He can’t go back to Triple-A, so it’s time to keep him in the majors.
The likely outcome here, then, is that Elias is the one to go. Or at least the one to get designated for assignment. Unfortunately, this comes at a low point in his value. Chances are, especially with this miserable starting pitching market, there’s someone out there who will consider him worth a roster spot. In fact, there might well be enough that the Red Sox can actually arrange a trade before having to put him through waivers. They won’t get much of anything back, but it’s at least better than nothing.
To recap, that’s a bullpen of:
It’s not an overwhelming group on first glance, but it can get there if Kelly plays well and Smith returns healthy. It’s also got quite a bit of depth behind it, which is ever important given how uncertain middle relievers can be.
All this, of course, could fly out the window. The Sox are done adding to the bullpen for now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be removing from it in the near future, and if they do, perhaps they’ll be opening the gates to some other names. Until that happens, though, this seems to signal that Brad Ziegler will not be making a return, and that Koji Uehara’s time in Boston is well and truly done. Ziegler was a pleasure to have around in the second half of 2016, but might have pitched himself out of Boston’s price range.
As for Koji? Koji was Koji. He might not be the pitcher he was in 2013 anymore, but for someone who threw just 226 innings in Boston, he’s left his mark on this franchise in a way few players do. Every pitcher who comes through here throwing a splitter for the next decade will be unfairly compared to him. It was a privilege just to watch him.