The start of spring training is always one of the happiest days of the year. The offseason is finally over, and there are real baseball things happening. That happiness fades quickly, turning into apathy and fear of injury. It’s a necessary time, of course, as players — particularly pitchers — need their time to get revved up for the season. The risk of injury is around every corner, though, and it’s terrifying. Those fears came to fruiting last week when Carson Smith was taken out of a game with some pain in his arm. Some of those fears were alleviated when the diagnosis came back and it was only a strain. It certainly could’ve been a worse result, but it’s still obviously not a good thing.
There are no doubts that the Red Sox are going to feel this injury from the get-go. Smith was acquired to be an extremely important piece of this bullpen. His impressive combination of strikeouts and ground balls (he has 11.7 K/9 and a 67 percent ground ball rate in his career) made him a unique weapon that could change the way John Farrell manages games. The coaching staff is going to have to go back to the drawing board to figure out a new plan for their pitchers.
The way I look at it, there are three ways this injury is going to impact this team early in the season. The first is its effect on the rotation. One of the advantages of building this spectacular back-end of the bullpen Dave Dombrowski put together was that the rotation had less pressure to go deep into games. They had the talent late in games for Farrell not to be wary of pulling a pitcher in the sixth inning if he just doesn’t have it any more. Now, Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa still exist, but that’s one less dominant pitcher they have at their disposal.
The next point of impact comes with those other arms at the back of the bullpen. Smith’s addition to the roster was really important for the other pitchers in the bullpen, specifically Uehara and Tazawa. Kimbrel is a robot, so he shouldn’t show too many negative side effects from this injury. The other two, however, stood to benefit from some very important rest with the addition of Smith. Uehara is entering his age-41 season, and he’s unsurprisingly already feeling some soreness some spring. In an ideal world, they'd be able to limit him to fewer than 60 appearances this season in hopes of keeping him fresh for a potential stretch run. Tazawa is still relatively young, but he’s been as overworked as any reliever in the game, and it started showing itself with some poor results last season. The Red Sox will either need someone to step up in Smith’s absence or have that absence be shorter than expected if their two super set up men will get the rest they need.
This brings us to the final point of impact: the pitchers who can benefit from Smith’s injury. The first and most obvious one is Matt Barnes, who likely had a good shot of making the roster anyway but now has an all-but-guaranteed spot. I wrote about the former first round pick recently, so I won’t go too in-depth on him here. However, it’s worth noting that his strong spring has only continued since that point, and he’s likely to get the first chance in high-leverage situations to see if he can join the other three established back-end relievers.
After Barnes, there is still another roster spot to be filled, and there are three options to fill it. The first is Noe Ramirez. He got his first taste of the majors in a short stint last year, and was aggressively unimpressive. However, it was only ten innings of work, and he’s been plenty effective throughout his minor-league career. The nice thing about Ramirez is he brings the kind of ground ball/strikeout combination that Smith boasts, albeit to a lesser extent. With his sinker-heavy approach, there’s a ceiling in which he strikes out a batter per inning while inducing grounders on over half of his balls in play. The control was a problem in the majors last year, and has continued to be this spring, but the team has made it clear he has a real shot to make the team.
The next guy to watch for is Roenis Elias. For most of the spring, it was assumed that he’d be fighting for a rotation spot, and would most likely be sent down to Pawtucket’s rotation. Now, he’s being used in relief in Grapefruit League action, setting the table for a change in strategy. With Steven Wright expected to slot into Eduardo Rodriguez’s rotation spot, the bullpen is lacking a long-man. Elias perfectly slides into that role, and also has the stuff to be a potential fit in short stints.
Finally, there’s an outside chance the Red Sox could carry just six relievers and add another bat to their bench. Specifically, that would mean keeping David Murphy around as some insurance for the questionable Rusney Castillo. This scenario is very unlikely, though. For one thing, the Red Sox don’t have the typical slate of days off early in the season to make that work. Even if they did, there are too many question marks on this pitching staff to give up a roster spot.
In the end, for as intriguing as Barnes, Ramirez and/or Elias could be in the bullpen, it’s clear that none of them are Carson Smith. Losing him is a huge blow and takes away one of Farrell’s biggest and most unique weapons. They can get by for a little bit as he makes his way back, but there’s little doubt that the Red Sox need Smith back as soon as possible in this tight American League playoff picture.