Coming into the season, the Red Sox bullpen was seen as a weakness. In fact, that was the case when the offseason started and it was one of the areas where everyone knew improvement was needed. They addressed it by trading for Brewers breakout Tyler Thornburg, but of course he hasn’t pitched yet this year. That injury was a big reason why there was so much concern this spring, but that concern has mostly been alleviated thus far this season.
It’s still incredibly early, but the bullpen has done its job in April. Craig Kimbrel has been terrific and looks like he could be back on the road towards being a truly elite reliever once again. Matt Barnes has settled in nicely as the eighth inning man. Heath Hembree has been solid as both a late-inning arm and a long-relief fireman. They’ve been a formidable unit, even if the peripherals don’t exactly scream “dominance.” Despite this success , Boston’s relief corps could be built in a more efficient fashion that would allow its success to be more likely to be sustained throughout the year.
There are a few issues with the bullpen — Hembree having to serve as a long man is one of them that I won’t really talk about today — but the one I want to focus on for the moment is the fact that the Red Sox are carrying three lefties. Generally speaking, teams have two southpaws in their bullpen at all times. Boston decided to break camp with three after Thornburg’s injury, and it made some sense at the time. It gave them a chance to get some extra time to solve the battle between Fernando Abad and Robby Scott while having another lefty in Robbie Ross that can handle hitters from both sides of the plate.
The issue right now is that they aren’t utilizing Ross along those lines. I’ve harped on this before, but it’s worth reiterating how valuable of an arm he can be. He is a reliever who should be used as a late-inning arm, or at least one of the most-utilized middle relievers on the team. Over his Red Sox career, he’s shown an ability to get ground balls and get strikeouts, which for my money are the two most important qualities in a reliever. He’s also been able to do so without showing off any platoon splits, obviously a huge sticking point for any left-hander. Last season, left-handed batters posted a .545 OPS against Ross while righties posted a mark of .660. Over his career, the OPS’s are .716 for lefties and .714 for righties.
While he is a lefty in the most literal term, this is not a left-handed specialist we’re talking about. He can be used in any situation, and doesn’t have to be held until the opponent has a string of lefties coming to the plate. Thus far this year, he has hardly been utilized at all. Now, before I get into that it’s important to acknowledge that he was placed on the disabled list with the flu early in the year. That obviously hurts his usage numbers.
On the other hand, he was activated on the 13th and has pitched just three times since then. Furthermore, it’s clear that he’s been used only when lefties are coming up, as he’s faced ten hitters from the left side and ten hitters from the right. For reference, last season he faced 141 righties and 97 lefties.
If he were treated as another right-handed reliever who happens to throw from the left side, carrying the two left-handed specialists would be more feasible. With the way Ross has been used lately, it just doesn’t work. We’ve seen first hand in recent games that the depth suddenly gets very short when someone becomes unavailable. When Hembree has to throw three innings the night before and can’t go back out there, suddenly only Barnes and Joe Kelly are available as non-closing righties. We’re seeing that predicament again with Barnes’ impending suspension. Again, if Ross were seen as a viable option along with those two things could be different, but that’s not the case.
As such, someone has to go. I would say Ross is off-limits, and that’s probably true but I’m not as confident in that as I was just a few weeks ago. It’s worth mentioning that he does have minor-league options. Scott also has options, and would be the logical choice to demote if they want to preserve as much depth as possible. However, it’s clear that John Farrell likes Scott a lot, so I’m not sure how realistic this option is.
That just leaves Abad, who of course is out of options and would have to be exposed to waivers and likely would subsequently be released if he were the odd man out. There’s an argument to be made that his struggles in 2016 were overblown and he should have a fair shake this year. That may be true, but it doesn’t appear it’s going to happen. Right or wrong, Farrell just doesn’t trust him. It took Abad seemingly forever to even get into a game this year, and he hasn’t been trusted with one big at bat against a lefty. Instead, he’s been a glorified mop-up arm. Dave Dombrowski may like him more than Farrell does, but at a certain point you just can’t carry a third lefty whose only job is to mop up blowouts. That spot is better suited for someone like Ben Taylor, Brandon Workman or Kyle Martin.
The Red Sox bullpen isn’t a huge issue right now, but it could be much better utilized. There isn’t enough right-handed depth on the major-league roster right now, and the team has two options to fix that. They can either treat Ross like a right-handed option and stop burying him on the bench or they can get rid of one of their lefties, with Abad being the logical choice. The current group is a house of cards that is waiting to fall, and a little stability needs to be added to the situation.