It’s not secret that the Red Sox bullpen is hurting right now. It’s not showing up in the team’s overall performance — they’ve flown out of the gate in the second half — but the back-end is starting to drop like flies. The good news is Junichi Tazawa will be returning soon (likely today), which gives the late innings a familiar face to fill them. Still, Craig Kimbrel has been out for a couple of weeks now, and figures to be out for at least a couple more. Now, Koji Uehara is on the shelf and it appears he’ll probably end up missing around a month as well.
The good news is, Brad Ziegler is now on the roster, and he’s perfectly capable of holding down the top spot in the bullpen while the injuries work themselves out. Even with him and the likely return of Tazawa, though, the depth has been cut down from where it was. That’s a natural side effect of injuries, obviously. Ben already outlined that the bullpen is not an issue even with these injuries, and he’s absolutely right. Again, just look at the team’s performance lately. The biggest reason they are going to be able to get through this stretch, though, is their second-tier arms.
Behind Ziegler and Tazawa is pretty clearly the trio of Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree and Robbie Ross. Each of them have had their inconsistencies this year, which is why they are pretty clearly in a second tier, but they’ve also shown plenty of flashes of greatness. With the aforementioned lack of depth, it is key that these three are able to show off their good side more often than not. Unfortunately, at least with Barnes and Hembree, these aren’t pitchers who are necessarily used to the full grind of a major-league season. It’s a hard line to walk, but if John Farrell wants to have a fully functional bullpen for the rest of the year and the postseason, he needs to find a way to rest these arms but also lean on them to get through this tough stretch. Luckily, these three arms have one key quality in common: They can all throw multiple innings.
Right now, it appears that Matt Barnes is the most important member of this trio, at least in Farrell’s eyes. Barnes has had a weird season, as there have been plenty of bad blips but also huge performance that have held the manager’s trust through the year. Barnes was the perfect candidate for a multi-inning fireman coming into the year given how recently he worked as a starter, and that’s come to fruition this year. So far this year, 15 of his 37 outings have featured more than three outs. It’s possible that the team is managing his workload, however, as his recent games have featured more one-inning outings than earlier in the year. That changed on Wednesday, of course, when he had his best outing of the year. On that day, he pitched three scoreless innings against the Giants which included escaping a bases loaded jam. Barnes pitching mutiple innings was a necessity on this night, but allowing him to do so more frequently, with longer breaks in between, could continue to limit his innings
Next up in this group is Heath Hembree, who in this writer’s opinion is the most intriguing arm of this tier. It seems as if he’s never been able to unseat Barnes at the top of Farrell’s heart for long stretches, but he’s been more consistent. That’s not the say there are no concerns with him — the fly ball tendencies and the sustainability of the strikeout rate stand out to me — but he’s been a quality bullpen arm this year. His ability to go multiple innings is also much more surprising than Barnes. Once deemed a “closer of the future” in San Francisco, I think it was a fair assumption he’d be a one-inning guy. Instead, he’s also served as a fireman with 13 of his 25 appearances requiring more than three outs. In fact, a whopping seven of them lasted at least six outs, and four of them lasted at least nine. Like Barnes, he doesn’t have the major-league track record, but giving him multiple days off between these outings can help limit that constant workload.
Then, there is Robbie Ross. He has the longest track record of anyone in this trio, but he also has the lowest ceiling. That doesn’t mean he’s been incredibly solid, though. Although he shouldn’t be the best lefty in a good bullpen, he serves a key role. His multi-inning usage hasn’t been quite the same as Barnes’ and Hembree’s — particularly of late — but he’s shown the capabilities in the past. I wrote about Ross early in the year, and part of that post was about his ability to go multiple innings.
Finally, there is the wildcard in all of this: Joe Kelly. He hasn’t yet worked his way up to the major-league bullpen, but one assumes that point will come at some point soon. I think it should go without saying that Kelly can serve this multi-inning role. Of course, he needs to be successful as a reliever before all else, and that’s another story for another day. If he can work in this role, though, he’s already stretched out and is the ideal fireman for 2016.
The Red Sox are going to need to balance resting their key second-tier relievers in a time when their depth is as weak as ever. Normally, that would mean they’d have to go out and add other pieces at the deadline. However, the makeup of this unit is unique in its ability to throw multiple innings. This is a particularly important point on this roster, which lends itself to blowouts on both sides given its potent lineup and the shaky rotation. This is going to be a rough stretch to get through for this bullpen, but the depth of multi-inning fireman in the second tier of the unit will make it much easier for Farrell to manage.