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Sifting through Boston’s eighth inning issue

To whom should the eighth inning belong?

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Opening Day has come and gone, and the Red Sox got out of Fenway with a win. It wasn’t pretty the whole way through, but overall it was a mostly positive game. The lineup got contributions from most of the players. The outfield defense showed off what it can do defensively. Rick Porcello was solid, and better than his stat line would indicate. Of course, beyond all that there was the one concern that has been creeping up since the last couple weeks of spring training. Who is going to step up and become the second-in-command in this bullpen behind Craig Kimbrel?

As I said, this has been an ongoing discussion for a few weeks. Specifically, it started when it became clear that Tyler Thornburg was probably going to miss some time to start the season. The former Brewer, of course, was pegged to be the eighth inning option before his injury. Now, until he returns, the picture is muddled. With that in mind, and after the up-and-down performances on Monday, it’s worth looking over the options again.

Matt Barnes

We’ll start with the one who took center stage on Monday. Barnes was the first Red Sox reliever to get action this season, taking over for Porcello after the starter was run in the seventh inning. His outing...well, it didn’t go well. Despite that, I’m still a fan of Barnes. I think the stuff is legit, and he has the potential to rack up the strikeouts. With that being said, I wouldn’t be ready to put him in the position of being the second most trusted arm in the bullpen. He still loses his command far too often, resulting in both walks and hard contact. It wouldn’t surprise me if he can get to that level by the end of the year, but he’s clearly not there yet.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Joe Kelly

Although Kelly didn’t get into the Opening Day contest, he was the prohibitive favorite for this role for the last few weeks. He, of course, was converted to a relief role midway through last season and came up to Boston for the end of the year. In that small sample, he looked utterly dominant. It’s easy to overlook that sample since his performance confirmed what many of us believed to be true: Kelly is much better suited for that role. His stuff clearly played up in shorter stints. On the other hand, this is still Kelly we’re talking about. It’s entirely possible he’s just dominant in this role — we’ve seen it with Andrew Miller before — but it seems more likely that his lack of command will come back to haunt him again. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not the best option here, but there’s risk of walks and hard contact, and that’s not ideal in high leverage spots.

Heath Hembree

In a surprising move from Monday, Hembree was brought on to get the last two outs of the eighth inning after Robby Scott started the frame. Like Barnes, I’m a fan of Hembree. He has strikeout stuff, and he showed the ability to serve multiple roles for John Farrell last season. Once upon a time, he was seen as a former closer in San Francisco’s organization. Also like Barnes, he’s not the best fit for this role right now. It’s not because of command issues, or at least not to the same extent. Rather, it’s platoon splits that are the reason to avoid Hembree here. While he was trusted by Farrell last year, he’s best suited for a role as a ROOGY, as he gets demolished by left-handed hitters. To wit, lefties produced an .890 OPS against Hembree versus a .591 mark for righties. He can still play a valuable role with those splits, but if he wants to be used in high-leverage spots he can’t make it so easy for opposing managers. Right now, they can simply substitute in left-handed hitters. Until he solves these issues, he should be a one-or-two out guy to pair with a LOOGY.

Robbie Ross

Unlike the three names above — who have all been mentioned by Farrell himself as candidates of the job — Ross has been mostly quiet on this front. This is just another instance of him being extremely underrated. He can strike people out (9.1 K/9 in 2016) and while his control isn’t great (3.7 BB/9) he keeps the ball on the ground (51 percent groundball rate). The biggest issue he’s not a true contender for this role is that he’s a lefty, but he doesn’t show huge platoon splits. Righties only produced a .660 OPS against Ross in 2016. With a 124 ERA+ and a 3.67 FIP since coming to Boston prior to 2015, he’s also the most proven player on this list.

At the end of the day, I would probably still go with Kelly for this role if they want to designate specific roles to their relievers.* He has huge upside, and last year was too enticing to gloss over. With that being said, Ross should play a bigger role than he’s seemingly being set up for. The Red Sox eighth inning situation isn’t ideal right now, but they have some upside and if managed well all four of the pitchers above can be successful.

*I won’t go off on a tangent on this subject, but I continuously go back and forth between whether or not specific roles are a good idea.