The idea of the "closer" has been under siege for some time now. You know the argument by this point, I'm sure. The ninth inning may be the last, but it's often not the most important. Miguel Cabrera at the plate in a tie game in the sixth with the bases loaded and two outs? That's when you need to bring in the big guns, not for the 6-7-8 in the ninth after the lead is up to three.
There is no question right now that Boston's closer is Craig Kimbrel. And, as such, we can assume that he will be utilized in much the manner detailed above. John Farrell, after all, was no stranger to going to Koji in a not-that-close ninth inning these past few years. And while the Red Sox have more depth than they have at times in the past, there's little indication that they will veer away from the traditional closing model.
Is it a waste? It's probably not optimal, given how rigidly it's structured. But for the Red Sox, it's a system that's likely to have a positive influence not just on the ninth inning, but the sixth, seventh, and eighth as well. In locking Craig Kimbrel into the ninth, the Red Sox may well find he saves not just the game, but the rest of the bullpen as well.
Last year, we saw the burden placed on the two-man team of Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa finally take its toll. Tazawa's ERA spiked to 4.14 in the later portions of the season, while Uehara managed just 40 innings before being shut down early in August. This wasn't exactly a surprising turn of events for Red Sox fans who had watched the team place all its bullpen hopes on the duo over the past three years. Something had to give eventually.
The good news is that it happened in a year where there was little at stake by the time the worst came to pass, and it clued the Red Sox in that they needed to change. Enter Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith.
Alone, Kimbrel would be a strong addition to the pen, but it's his combination with Smith that allows the whole unit to truly shine. With Kimbrel installed in the ninth, the Red Sox can use Smith the way many fans would like for their teams to use closers. That Miguel Cabrera at bat? Craig Kimbrel might not be able to handle it, but Carson Smith can be called on at any time for the most important moments of the game. With the closer role taken care of, the Red Sox are free to employ a true "fireman" in Smith, which is likely the most valuable way to use any top-flight reliever.
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So now they've got Kimbrel in the ninth, and Smith for the biggest moments. What does that leave Tazawa and Uehara? Light schedules, which is probably the best thing the Red Sox could ask for. A light schedule gives Junichi Tazawa the best chance of being the excellent reliever he was up until the last months of 2015. And Koji? If the Red Sox were expecting a 41-year-old Uehara to hold up for a potential postseason run while throwing 60+ innings during the season, they'd be in for a nasty surprise. 45 innings, though? That's not all that hard to imagine.
And don't underrate the effects on Carson Smith either. While the Red Sox will be expecting him to do some serious work for them, no bullpen with duties that can be split between at least four serious members should overtax any of its individual pieces. With Smith under team control for a full five years, the Red Sox would be well-served to moderate his usage early in his career. Even last year, with their rotation truly a mess, the Red Sox needed just 500 innings from their bullpen. If they can keep Smith to 60-65 innings rather than 75-80, they'll be that much more likely to have him at his best in years to come.
The Red Sox bullpen will be more than just these four men. And the Sox would very much hope they can find at least one more solid seventh-inning type to go with a lefty specialist. After all, if Carson Smith is too often called into service early in the game, the Sox could fall into the bad habit of relying on Tazawa and Uehara for specific innings, which could in turn see their workload rise into dangerous territories again. While it's tempting to see the bullpen as saving the rotation from then need to go deep into games, the reality is that five frames from each starter would quickly wear any four-man unit down, even with David Price rest days. Really, keeping these four out of games that are clearly won or clearly lost might be just as important as having Craig Kimbrel to shoulder the ninth, free up Smith, and lighten the load on Tazawa and Uehara.
But in the close games, the ones where every at bat matters, they'll have the winning combination of Carson Smith for the ones that matter most, Tazawa and Uehara for the in-between, and Craig Kimbrel to wrap it all up and seal the victory. A combination that should hopefully last all the way into October spread across so many arms as it is.