Despite all the hand-wringing heading into the season, the Red Sox bullpen has actually been pretty impressive in the early going in 2017. Matt Barnes has pitched the most, despite missing a few days on bereavement, and after his scare in the first game he’s settled down and looks like the answer in the eighth inning. Heath Hembree and Joe Kelly each lost out on the eighth inning role, but they’ve pitched like good middle relievers, albeit with their bad lapses. Craig Kimbrel has been Craig Kimbrel, meaning he’s flashed his dominant stuff while also having trouble locating said stuff. Robby Scott has played lefty specialist, and he’s done well in that role. Even Ben Taylor and Noe Ramirez have done their part. The former struck out his first three opponents and mostly pitched well in his first major-league series against the Tigers. The latter was only up for a few days but got the five outs he was called upon to record in his one and only appearance. So, that’s all the relievers on the team and...
....Oh, what, then there’s Fernando Abad. The former Twin who the Red Sox acquired last summer in exchange for Pat Light is on the roster, but hasn’t appeared in a single one of Boston’s first seven games. In fact, I’m not sure I can recall him warming up at all this year, but I’m probably wrong about that. Either way, it’s strange that a veteran like Abad, who was tendered a contract this winter when the team could have just walked away for nothing, hasn’t gotten to throw in a game yet. At this point, it’s entirely unclear what his role on this team could possibly be.
It’s certainly not as the team’s left-handed specialist. As I said above, that job belongs to Scott. It started to become clear in camp that Farrell preferred Scott when he started discussing the ongoing battle for the second lefty position in the bullpen. This was around when Abad left for the World Baseball Classic. To that point, there hadn’t really been any chatter about Abad possibly not making the major-league roster to start the season. Tyler Thornburg’s injury allowed them to carry three lefties to start the year, saving Farrell and Dave Dombrowski from having to make the choice between Abad and Scott just yet. It was my assumption that they’d use this time to get more looks at both options to better inform their decision when the time came for them to cut one loose. Obviously, my assumption was wrong.
It’s not as if Abad has taken over as a mop-up pitcher, either. Ideally, he’d only face left-handed hitters but if the score is lopsided in either direction, it doesn’t really matter who he’s facing. He just needs to get outs without completely imploding. The Red Sox had their first chance for a mop-up guy on Tuesday, with the team leading 8-1 heading into the ninth. They put Kelly out there. Now, to be fair, three runs were added in the bottom of the eighth, so maybe Abad didn’t have time to warm up. But I think they could have used him if they wanted to.
For the time being, Abad is their second lefty that hasn’t had an opportunity to pitch yet. However, he won’t even be able to keep that job for very long. Robbie Ross is on the disabled list with the flu, but he’s starting a rehab assignment in Pawtucket and is eligible to return in just a few days. At that point, he becomes the top lefty and Scott becomes an oft-used number two.
When Ross was first placed on the disabled list, it seemed almost certain that Taylor, the rookie, would be the guy to lose his spot when he returned. Things have changed since then. For one thing, Taylor looks legitimately great and after impressing the coaches all spring he doesn’t really deserve to be demoted to Pawtucket. That only leaves Abad as an option to take off the active roster.
The only issue with that plan is that Abad is out of minor-league options and thus would have to be exposed to waivers if designated for assignment. Even if he cleared waivers, he may not accept a demotion to Pawtucket. As we’ve seen this year with the absurd flu epidemic, keeping depth around is important. With that being said, at a certain point it becomes unnecessary. When the team doesn’t trust a player in seemingly any situation, I think we’ve reached that point.
If this is how it ends for Abad and the Red Sox, it begs a couple of questions. For one, why was he even tendered a contract this winter? I know we’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth rehashing very quickly. It’s understandable that Scott came into camp and pitched better than expected. However, it’s clear at this point that Farrell doesn’t trust Abad at all. So, is this a new phenomenon? It must be, since one would imagine the manager had some input as to whether they’d keep the lefty.
The other question is why Abad hasn’t been trusted this year. I know that his first impression in Boston last summer wasn’t great, but he’s shown the ability to fill the LOOGY role quite well. Last season, he held lefties to an OPS of just .459 with a sub-.200 OBP. Even over his career lefties have just a .675 OPS. Where Abad gets into trouble is when the manager keeps him in against righties. That’s far from an ideal pitcher, but it’s one that has a role on major-league rosters.
For whatever reason, Abad was kept around this winter and then survived camp due to an injury to Tyler Thornburg. Now, with Ross getting set to come back from the disabled list, he has another obstacle on the horizon. Since he hasn’t pitched all year, it seems likely that Abad’s road will end with Ross’ return as the team opts to keep Taylor around. That’s far from a guarantee, though, as he’s shown an ability to stick around this roster for months now without ever really having a role.