It seems like ages ago, but really it was only a few years back when the Red Sox prospect discussion was dominated by "The Killer B’s." Xander Bogaerts was always the leader of that clan, at one point being heralded as one of the premier prospects in the game. He, of course, is on his way to fulfilling at least most of that promise. Jackie Bradley was the quick-riser of the group, with defense so enticing that his offensive profile hardly mattered. He, of course, has been inconsistent at the highest level but has earned himself an everyday role to start 2016.
Then, there’s Matt Barnes. Knowing what we know now, it’s amazing that Barnes was the third member of The Killer B’s and not Mookie Betts. While the latter is already a borderline star, Barnes has been a quad-A player over the last couple years. Just a few years ago — prior to the 2013 season to be exact — however, he was a top-40 prospect in the game. His stock fell a bit that year, but he was still a top-100 guy according to both Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com. We all know that kind of status is futile, though, and that’s how someone with his profile finds himself still waiting to stick in the majors heading into his age-26 season. The 2016 season could be his last chance. Can he do it?
Before we look forward, let’s take a second to look back at how Barnes has reached this point. He, of course, was selected as a starter out of UConn and remained in that role on a permanent basis until last season. A lack of command and control, leading to high walk and home run totals, prevented a major-league rotation from ever being a realistic landing spot for him. Last season, he split his time between the rotation and bullpen, and we started seeing some flashes of a guy who could carve out a role at the highest level.
Overall, his triple-A numbers from 2015 aren’t all that impressive. A 4.06 ERA and 3.85 FIP don’t push the issue for a major-league call-up. However, his stuff clearly played up in the relief role. While his walk-rate remained high — to the tune of five walks per nine innings — his strikeout rate went from exactly one batter per inning as a starter to nearly 11 per nine innings out of the bullpen. Even more encouraging was the improvement of his command. Although the walks were still there, he limited damage on pitches in the zone by reducing his home run rate and increasing his ground ball rate.
As encouraging as that may be, though, it still hasn’t translated to the majors. He’s pitched almost exclusively as a reliever with the big-league team, and has still pitched to an atrocious 5.19 ERA with a 4.90 FIP and a 5.82 FIP. So why is there so much optimism around him this year?
First and foremost, he no longer has to wonder what role he’s going to fill. Even last season they kept him stretched out for starts in Pawtucket’s rotation. It’s hard to put a value on this from the outside, but one would have to believe having that kind of uncertainty would have a negative effect on performance. Intuitively, the fact that he’ll be pitching exclusively in a relief role in 2016 should give him more confidence in his preparation.
On top of that, the strikeout stuff that made him so intriguing back in his prospect days are still there. Barnes has always been able to rack up the K’s, setting down as many as 11 batters per nine in 108 innings with Portland in 2013. Even as a major-league pitcher, he’s been able to strike out just over eight batters per nine. With Dave Dombrowski on board and his apparent love for relievers with high velocity, Barnes should certainly get a chance at some point. He has sat in the mid-90’s with his fastball throughout his career, and the early reports from camp have been encouraging in this regard.
This leads us to the final point, which probably doesn’t matter a whole lot but is worth mentioning. Barnes has been undeniably impressive in spring. It’s only come over seven innings, but he has struck out eight batters while walking just one. Even better is that he’s gotten better as the spring has gone on and the opponents’ starting lineup has stayed in the game longer. In particular, he’s getting more ground balls as the spring has gone on. If he’s going to stick in the majors, he’ll need to cut down on his home runs and inducing grounders is the easiest way to do so. Again, one appearance or even a handful won’t mean much, but it’s worth mentioning that in his last time out Barnes recorded 2-1/3 scoreless innings. The possibility of him being a multi-inning reliever in 2016 makes him all the more intriguing.
As of this writing, Roster Resource has Barnes listed as making the Opening Day roster. That’s far from a guarantee, but even if he starts the year in Pawtucket he’ll certainly get another chance at some point in 2016. In fact, given Pat Light’s early cut from camp, he could be the first reliever called up in case of injury or underperformance. Given what we’ve seen from him in the majors, it’s hard to be completely sold on him as a real contributor. On the other hand, his past potential combined with the newfound stability of a certain role could make Barnes a sleeper to contribute important innings in a reloaded Red Sox bullpen and join his other Killer B compadres as a legitimate Major Leaguer.