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2017 Red Sox positional preview: The relievers

Looking at the organization’s relief pitcher outlook heading into the season.

MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at Boston Red Sox Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

In this final week before the regular season finally begins, we’ll be taking a look at the organization as a whole by position groups. This will include the starters, the bench players, the immediate depth, the high-level prospects and the low-level prospects. By my arbitrary definition, the high-level prospects include those in Double- or Triple-A, and low-level prospects including everyone else. Today, we’ll look at the starting pitchers.

The Starters

Craig Kimbrel, Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree, Robbie Ross, Matt Barnes, Fernando Abad, Robby Scott

If the Red Sox ever have their entire bullpen healthy — and that includes the two guys in the next section — they should have a loaded relief corps. As of right now, though, it’s a solid one that has a ton of upside but also a ton of risk. Craig Kimbrel is still the man, and while he was disappointing at times last year he’s still one of the better relievers in the game. He’ll need to get his control under wraps, of course, but the strikeout stuff is still there and he’ll convert more saves than not.

Joe Kelly becomes the eighth inning man to start the year, which is a long way from his place at the back of the rotation to start last season. Obviously, he never worked out as a starter, but he’s looked outstanding as a reliever. His time in the major-league bullpen in 2016 was short last year, but it was good enough to get many rightfully excited for his prospects in 2017. Of course, there is still plenty of risk given his short track record.

Heath Hembree showed plenty of flashes last year, and even became a shockingly proficient multi-inning weapon. Still, he has major problems against lefties and he can’t really be trusted as a high-leverage arm until he figures out those issues. He’s the third best right-handed reliever on the roster to start the year, and that could be fine but there’s also a chance that could be a very bad thing.

Robbie Ross is one of the more underrated players on this entire team in this writer’s opinion. He gets strikeouts, he gets ground balls and he gets outs against hitters on both sides of the plate. Hembree has gotten most of the buzz for the seventh inning role, but it should probably go to Ross.

Matt Barnes is one of my favorites in this bullpen, and I think he could potentially end the year above everyone besides Kimbrel on this list. He has big-time prospect pedigree and the stuff to match. Right now, he still makes too many mistakes and can get hard. That’s not ideal in high-leverage spots, but we’ve seen relievers bring it all together at his age before.

Fernando Abad and Robby Scott are going to form a two-headed LOOGY role to start the year. It’s unclear how long the Red Sox will go with this strategy, but think of it as an extension of the battle the two were fighting in camp for the last roster spot. Both are adequate in this role, but don’t expect much excitement from either guy.

MLB: Spring Training-Houston Astros at Boston Red Sox Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Injured

Tyler Thornburg, Carson Smith

Here we have two extremely exciting young relievers who Dave Dombrowski traded for and haven’t been able to do anything with the Red Sox. Tyler Thornburg, of course, just got here but he’s already on the disabled list. Hopefully it doesn’t last long, though, since he has big stuff and is coming off a breakout season. Carson Smith, meanwhile, was one of the more promising young relief arms in the league before getting hurt. If he can come back as he was before, he’ll make this bullpen infinitely better when he returns around midseason.

The Immediate Depth

Kyle Martin, Luis Ysla, Noe Ramirez, Brandon Workman, Edgar Olmos, Chandler Shepherd

The Red Sox have some interesting names ready to come up from Triple-A if needed, but no one overly exciting. Kyle Martin has shown plenty of potential in the minors, but it’s hard to be overly confident in any fastball/changeup reliever. Luis Ysla has the stuff to be a legitimate left-handed reliever in this league, but he’s yet to show the necessary command. Noe Ramirez is.....well, he’s going to be the guy to come up whenever they need a reliever for a day or two. Brandon Workman is the most interesting name on this list, but mostly for 2013 nostalgia. He hasn’t pitched in the majors in a couple years and anything he gives in 2017 is a bonus. Edgar Olmos has been impressive this spring and he’s my sleeper on this list to become an important piece of this bullpen in the second half. Chandler Shepherd isn’t a fireballer but he has the control and secondaries to be a fine middle reliever at some point.

The High-Level Prospects

Austin Maddox, Ben Taylor, Williams Jerez, Jamie Callahan

This position is a little different on the high-level prospect front, since this is also a group that could see the majors very easily in 2017. Relievers, of course, generally move faster through the system compared to other positions. Austin Maddox tops this list, and he’s gotten plenty of run this spring. He could probably be listed in the immediate depth section, but I think that’d be overplaying his abilities. He lacks a true putaway pitch and the command to be a sure-thing major leaguer. Ben Taylor is in a similar position as a guy who has gotten plenty of work in spring training action. He also lacks a dominant pitch, although his fastball is better than Maddox’. Jerez was on the 40-man roster last year after being protected from the Rule 5 draft, but the converted outfielder took a major step back. If he can get his command back, he’ll be back on the radar this year. Jamie Callahan is my favorite from this group, as a former second round pick who converted to relief midway through 2015. He has solid stuff that can translate into strikeouts, but the command and control need plenty of work.

The Low-Level Prospects

Jake Cosart, Austin Glorius, Stephen Nogosek, Gerson Bautista

Reliever prospects aren’t really guys who get talked about much, especially for the Red Sox who have traditionally waited until the last second to convert their pitchers to the ‘pen. That’s been changing recently, though, and there are more exciting names than usual in the lower levels. Jake Cosart has a big fastball and potential for solid secondaries, but was god awful as a starter. He dominated as a reliever last year, though, and is someone I’m very exciting about seeing in Portland if/when he makes it there. Austin Glorius was an undrafted free agent who surprised everyone with his dominant performance in Lowell in 2015. He came a little bit back to Earth last season, but the huge fastball is still there, particularly in shorter stints. Stephen Nogosek was a 2016 draftee who has a starter’s repertoire but a reliever’s deliver. Gerson Bautista converted to the bullpen last season and some reports had him hitting triple digits. He has work to do, but clearly there’s potential here.