The hits really do just keep coming. Early in the year, it was just Carson Smith, but in the last few weeks, the Red Sox have seen their bullpen hit by injuries to Craig Kimbrel, Junichi Tazawa, and Koji Uehara. For those keeping score, that's the group that would've been considered the top four from before the season began.
When Uehara went down last night -- and it's still not clear that he's down for long -- there was no small amount of speculation that the Red Sox would be forced back into the trade market to replace him, and no few expressing the sentiment that the need for a reliever was desperate. And yet, even now, the situation is not as dire as it might seem when you actually take a step back and look at it.
From the beginning of the year, the strength of the bullpen has actually been found not in the names that were supposed to carry the unit, but in the supporting cast. Carson Smith threw only a few innings. Craig Kimbrel has been overwhelming at times, and still a strong piece, but not up to his usual standards. The same is true of Junichi Tazawa, whose homer issues have put a damper on what would otherwise be a phenomenal year. And really, for all we love Koji, he's very much shown his age. For every few great nights, there's one where that splitter just hangs up and asks to be crushed.
If that was all the Red Sox were getting from their bullpen, it would be a terribly disappointing unit. And I suppose you can argue that for a group that was supposed to be overwhelming, the Sox have ended up a solidly middle-of-the-road bunch. But for a team playing in Fenway Park and the AL East, having an above-average bullpen by ERA without any sort of league or park adjustment is actually pretty damn good, and that's exactly what the Sox have, thanks in no small part to the fact that there's been so few actually bad members of the bullpen.
This, mind, is taking into account only the regulars.If you turn to the guys who pop up every once in a while--Noe Ramirez and William Cuevas come to mind--things can get dire. But in terms of players who get innings, the arms expected to be little more than filler have done exceptional work. Matt Barnes has been an absolute workhorse, throwing 44 innings of 3.07 ERA ball in his first full year as a reliever. Heath Hembree has been a revelation, finally reaching the heights that were once expected of him as San Francisco's closer-of-the-future. Even Robbie Ross Jr. has plenty going for him if you can look past an oddly low strand rate.
By themselves, that group isn't enough to get the job done, I'd agree. But Dave Dombrowski already went and picked up Brad Ziegler, who looks as good as advertised in getting hitters to pound the ball into the ground for easy outs. And then there's the fact that we're just a few days away from the probable return of Junichi Tazawa.
Dave Dombrowski's Red Sox aren't the same as ours
It's a win-now job for nearly every decision-maker, no more so than Boston's Sox President of Baseball Operations.
It Ziegler - Tazawa - Hembree - Barnes - Ross a terrific unit? No, I don't think anyone can argue that it is. It's just lacking that top end that a guy like Kimbrel provides. But if the Sox don't currently have a lockdown unit, they do at least have a lot more depth to their pen than we've seen in years. Even in 2013, once Andrew Miller went down, the bullpen basically came down to Uehara and Tazawa. The Sox were left relying on Craig Breslow's last burst of devil magic and Drake Britton for the seventh before converting Brandon Workman and Felix Doubront to the pen in the late going.
This 2016 Red Sox team has no such problems with depth. Only with keeping their top arms healthy. And while we've seen Dave Dombrowski be plenty active in the trade market, now might be the time to give it a rest, let the pen we've got heal up, and maybe see if Joe Kelly has anything to offer the unit while there's still space for him. This isn't quite the lockdown unit that the Sox were expecting headed into the season, where they could shorten games to six innings. But they've got an offense that can build multi-run leads, and enough arms that they can keep one of those alive for more than just three innings if absolutely necessary.
So yes, Dave Dombrowski could wade back into the trade market and try to find help for the bullpen. But realistically the Red Sox aren't looking for just another reliever. The only kind of arm that would really move the needle is a top-flight closer-type, and those typically come only at great expense. Better to just wait out the Kimbrel injury than to overpay investing in a unit that just isn't in dire need of help.