It's never reasonable to expect things to go perfectly out of the gate, and they certainly haven't for the Red Sox bullpen so far this season. Don't get me wrong, Junichi Tazawa has been excellent so far and, for the most part, Koji Uehara has been similarly strong, but seeing him struggle the other day (and be completely fastball dependent at that) was kind of a big red flag. And to put the cherry on top of everything, while Craig Kimbrel has been electric so far, he just hasn't been able to consistently find the strike zone.
Which brings us to Carson Smith. It's kind of hard to quantify his absence from the Red Sox bullpen mostly because we haven't seen what he brings to the table in this mix of pitchers. We know Smith is good, and he looked pretty damn good in those few teases during spring training, but without having seen him actually in the fold in the 7th or 8th inning, it's hard to know just how much the team misses him.
What's evident is that the team lacks bullpen depth right now. Just look at Thursday's contest against the Rays: with the Red Sox trailing by a run in the seventh, John Farrell brought in William Cuevas. Cuevas got out of the inning, but when the team came back and tied Tampa Bay in the bottom of the frame, Cuevas came back out onto the mound, who promptly gave the lead back to the Rays. Yeah, certainly not ideal.
Cuevas was in the game primarily because the Red Sox shut down four of their relievers — Kimbrel, Tazawa, Heath Hembree and Robbie Ross Jr. — a product of the team's relative lack of depth in close games in the latter innings. And for whatever reason, Uehara was only available in a situation where the Red Sox had a lead.
The absence of Smith isn't necessarily going to be something that's felt on a night-to-night basis, but an issue that manifests itself after a series of tough games. Instead of spreading the work of being the set-up man out between Tazawa, Uehara and Smith, that duty instead falls squarely on the shoulders of the Japanese hurlers. That, of course, then has a trickle down effect and leads to guys like Hembree, Ross, Layne, etc, being used in higher-leverage situations, which is certainly not ideal.
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I've drilled this point home in a couple of posts prior to the season, but having a lockdown backend bullpen is no longer the market inefficiency it was over the last few seasons when the Royals really took advantage of shortening games while using a relatively lackluster rotation. Especially in the AL East, the Orioles, the Blue Jays and the Yankees all have some of the best relievers in baseball. Having a bullpen that can lock down the back end of games, especially in high-leverage situations, is becoming a necessity, not a luxury.
Luckily for the Red Sox, Smith appears close to be making his return to the bullpen. Prior to Thursday's game, Farrell said Smith pitched in an extended spring training game on Thursday, his first live action since suffering a flexor strain in March, and will throw in another game on Saturday before leaving to join a minor league affiliate in a rehab assignment.
Unfortunately, there's still some concern among the rest of the relievers on the roster. Obviously, no team is going to have a group of relievers who are all dynamite from beginning to end, but I'm not totally confident in the current group.
Matt Barnes is still just 25 years old, but his performance as a reliever really hasn't been very convincing at all. He's inconsistent at best, and while he certainly has a pretty good raw arsenal, he hasn't been able to reign it in and use it effectively coming out as a reliever. Hembree (to my surprise) is 27 years old and has shown some spurts of effectiveness at the major league level, but the jury is still out. Tommy Layne kind of feels like the defacto lefty arm out of the bullpen. He's not bad, but he's certainly nothing special. This area feels like a spot where an upgrade feels most feasible. Ross Jr. seems like a serviceable sixth inning guy, but his current role, especially given the injuries, feels like asking for too much.
Right now, the Red Sox bullpen needs some help. It's not that the talent isn't there (although an upgrade in some areas would certainly be warranted), but the talent is simply being overused. And once Smith comes back, some of those issues may solve themselves.