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Checking in on the Red Sox middle relievers

I'm just giving the people what they want: all middle relievers all the time.

Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros Photo by Eric Christian Smith/Getty Images

For the most part, the back of the bullpen has been fine to start the season for the Red Sox. It hasn’t been dominant by any means, and there have been games in which the late-inning guys have failed. With that being said, the unit was considered a strength heading into the season, and there’s little reason to change that opinion at this point. Plus, Carson Smith will be back soon. The rest of the bullpen, however, has been a little more concerning and is much more of a question mark moving forward. It could play an important role, though, if the rotation struggles to make it deep into games and/or there are more injuries at the back of the pen. With that in mind, let’s look through the early returns from the middle relievers and see who’s worth keeping around.

Heath Hembree

We’ll start with the guy who has been, by far, the most impressive second-tier reliever for the Red Sox. Although Hembree didn’t even start the year in the majors, he’s made quite an impression since coming up. We’re obviously dealing with a tiny sample, but the numbers have been outstanding this far. His strikeouts are above 12 per nine innings, and he’s walking fewer than 1.5 batters per nine. Now, his plate discipline numbers suggest a bit of regression here, as does his track record. On top of that, he’s still allowing a ton of fly balls, so the home runs will follow at some point. With that said, he’s looking like a new pitcher this year, and while he’s not quite this good, Hembree appears to be a useful major-league reliever. That’s a lot more than I though of him just a few weeks ago.

Matt Barnes

Judging by the remarks from users on the world wide web when Barnes enters a game, I am among the highest on the righty. It’s true that he does give up a lot of hard contact, and that is undeniably scary. However, even with that contact the numbers have been solid. Specifically, he’s pitched to a 3.18 ERA and a 3.35 FIP through Wednesday. He’s going to have some outings where he blows up, and that keeps him out of a true high-leverage role. That’s not what we’re looking for, though. I look at Barnes as a similar guy to Hembree, and that’s a useful middle reliever.

Robbie Ross

I wrote about Ross just last week. Since that time, he’s had one rough outing and one clean one, each lasting two-thirds of an inning. That is to say, I haven’t really changed my mind on him since then. He’s fine, and a useful piece to have. He’s not a great LOOGY or anything, but he can stay.

Tommy Layne

¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I have changed my opinion on Layne so many times over the last year or two that it’s starting to alarm me. He hasn’t been great this year, and the fact that John Farrell doesn’t seem to trust him doesn’t help his case at all. Although his strikeouts are up, he’s still walking a ton of batters, and he’s missing the ground balls that he’s induced throughout his career. That, in turn, has led to home run problems. Now, Layne is pretty much just a LOOGY, and any at bats against right-handed batters are not advised. With that said, the Red Sox should aim higher in that department. He’s fine for now, but if there is a LOOGY out there at the deadline and the Red Sox are in contention, they should pay the likely modest price for him.

Noe Ramirez

It may just be me, but Ramirez seems like he’s been around forever. He’s always appeared to have some promise, but at this point it’s hard to see anything coming from him. He’s gotten his chances, and he hasn’t been able to make the leap to MLB competition. His command just doesn’t translate, as he’s failing to get the ground balls he’s induced in the minors and just allows a ton of hard contact in general. He’s a fine depth piece to keep around, of course, but he really shouldn’t be a mainstay.

Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Pat Light

Light is more of a future piece than a present-day one, despite being on the roster as we speak. The stuff is there, as one can see somewhat clearly from the radar gun as it flashes triple digits during his outings. Unfortunately, the control hasn’t quite caught up. In fact, it was slightly surprising to see the Red Sox call him up before those problems were addressed, and I’d expect him to head back down soon. He could be a nice piece down the stretch, but he’s simply depth until he polishes his game.

Anthony Varvaro

Here we have by far the most interesting name not currently on the 40-man roster. Obviously, he has the track record having held down an important role with the Braves for a couple years. The issue, of course, is that was two years ago. However, after a year on the shelf he has looked good to start his season at Triple-A, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get a chance with the big-league team soon. There’s no telling how much rust he’ll have to fight off in the majors, but he’s a sleeper to become a fixture in this bullpen.

Roenis Elias

It’s uncertain just how big of a role he can play here, since he’s currently serving as starting pitching depth. If he’s allowed to compete for a role in the bullpen, though, he could thrive. He has some experience in that role, and has been much more successful against lefties in his career. If Layne continues to struggle, the Red Sox owe it to themselves to try Elias in the LOOGY role, provided the rotation stays relatively healthy.

William Cuevas

He’s kind of similar to Ramirez, except for the fact that he hasn’t gotten the same chances. I don’t expect a ton out of Cuevas just based on his profile, though, and see him more as depth.

Williams Jerez

The former outfielder-turned pitcher is one of the most fascinating stories in the system, and he was added to the 40-man roster this winter. However, barring a dominant summer in the minors, he won’t be more than a late-season call up. He’s someone to watch for, but not really in 2016.

Joe Kelly

I had to do this. I’ve been among the lowest on Kelly for a long time now, and it appears the time may finally be coming to try him in the bullpen full-time. I have no idea if this is actually in the plans, but with the rest of the rotation looking okay and Eduardo Rodriguez coming back, starting spots are running thin. Now, there’s no guarantee that Kelly could excel in this role, as bad command is bad command regardless of how much the stuff plays up. However, it’s at least worth a shot and there’s a non-zero chance he’s an impact bullpen arm for the second-half of the season.

* * *

I should probably also mention Brandon Workman, but the truth is I have nothing to go on in judging his future prospects. He’s a nice wildcard opportunity for later in the year, but he can’t be fully counted on at this point. Regardless, Hembree, Barnes and Ross all appear to be solid options to go along with the back-end of the rotation. Layne is fine for now, but finding a new LOOGY would be ideal even if it means one of Hembree or Barnes go to Pawtucket for a bit. This is a unit that also has wildcards like Varvaro and Kelly if the younger righties don’t work out. Overall, even if it hasn’t looked good all the time in 2016, the Red Sox bullpen looks pretty solid for the rest of the year.