After Matt Barnes’ rough outing played a big role in Boston’s frustrating loss to the White Sox on Monday, I think it’s time to take another look at what exactly the Red Sox have in their bullpen. It’s been clear for most of the season that they could use some more help in middle relief, but at the same time the unit has performed better than they’ve been given credit for. So, with that in mind, let’s look at all of the relievers, what their current roles are whether or not it’s the best role for them going forward.
Kimbrel has been incredible this season. There are some weak spots in the bullpen, but the Red Sox closer is not one of them. Even better, John Farrell has shown a willingness to be more aggressive with the fireballer this season, using him in non-save situations when he sees fit. Kimbrel is very obviously in the right role as the top option in the bullpen.
Barnes has had the trust of Farrell since last season, and he’s shown flashes that explain how he’s earned that trust. When he’s at his best, he can command his fastball in the high-90s with two solid breaking balls. When he’s at his worst, the velocity is still up there but he has no idea where it’s going. That helps explain why he’s striking out more than ten batters per nine innings while also walking four. That type of inconsistent pitcher with big stuff but shaky command has a role in the majors, but ideally it’s in middle relief rather than a setup role. Right now he’s being trusted as the team’s number two in the bullpen. It’s definitely not a good fit, but are there better options?
The modern bullpen is generally built with a closer and two setup men. If that’s how we look at the Red Sox bullpen, Hembree likely slots in that second setup spot. The righty, now sporting some truly awful cornrows, is another guy who is probably in a role above his head. While I believe I’m higher on the righty than most, I see the reservations others have. His strikeout stuff isn’t elite, particularly in today’s game. He also tends to lose his command far too often, resulting in either free passes or hard contact, and sometimes both. On the other hand, he’s inducing more swinging strikes this year and is limiting his walks to fewer than two per nine innings thanks to an increase in swings on pitches out of the zone. All in all, his flyball tendencies combined with a lack of big stuff makes his ideal spot in middle relief, much like Barnes.
Along with the closers and two setup men, bullpens need a reliable lefty to utilize in the late innings. This season, Scott has emerged as this guy. I’ve written about this before, but he has been much better suited for this role than I anticipated. He’s held lefties to an impressive .352 OPS while inducing tons of ground balls and getting enough strikeouts to get by. He might be better suited as a second lefty only because his stuff doesn’t play nearly as well against righties, but he’s earned enough trust to hold down this job for now without the team having to worry too much about Scott.
Before the season, most of us assumed Kelly was going to be the primary setup man after his electric end to the 2016 season. Instead, he didn’t look quite as dominant in spring and Farrell never entrusted him with a setup role. That choice appeared to be vindicated in April when he struck out only five batters while walking eight in 13 1⁄3 innings. In May, however, he’s looked much more like the guy he was at the end of last season, striking out 12 batters with just two walks in ten innings of work. There are certainly reasons to be wary of Kelly, but given the way he’s throwing right now I’d place him above both Barnes and Hembree and make him my primary setup man.
I don’t know what to think about Abad anymore. It’s clear that he’s not trusted by his manager, and the stuff isn’t all that impressive. Despite that, he somehow has an above-average DRA in a small sample, though it’s worth noting the more predictive cFIP isn’t nearly as kind. He’s showing the best control of his control, but is pairing that with hard contact and the lowest strikeout rate of his career. The Red Sox don’t have any other options for a second lefty right now, so the choice is between keeping him at the bottom of their roster or rolling with just one southpaw. I could be convinced of the virtues of either strategy, but I’m fine with sticking with him until Robbie Ross is healthy. Once Ross returns, though, it’s time to move on from Abad.
Might as well get into Ross now, I suppose. He’s currently shut down with elbow inflammation, which may explain why he hasn’t quite been himself this year. Still, the Red Sox have been pretty careless with the lefty who has been one of their most consistent relievers in recent years. He’s been optioned to Pawtucket twice and never really given a chance to get in a zone this year. I still believe he has the talent, if healthy, to be the second setup man to Kelly this year, but at the very least Ross should take Abad’s spot whenever he’s ready.
The last spot in the bullpen has been a revolving door this season, and right now it’s occupied by Boyer. I don’t really have much faith in Boyer, as his track record is reliant on fringe stuff that induces weak contact, and that’s a tiny margin for error. It’s a scary proposition for a pitcher near the end of his career. He did strikeout two in a 1-2-3 inning on Monday, though, and as we’ll see the other options aren’t exactly knocking the door down to get up.
Workman was just optioned to Pawtucket, although that may be surprising to you since he didn’t appear in a game in his week on the roster. The contributor to the 2013 World Series title has looked solid in Triple-A this year and definitely deserves a look for a middle relief role later in the year.
Taylor impressed the team enough to earn a spot on the roster out of spring training and has since been used as an up-and-down arm. This is a good role for him right now, though there’s an argument to be made he’s the best suited for the last spot in the bullpen. That says more about his competition than him, though.
The outlook for the Red Sox bullpen is not great, although the sky is not falling either. They have enough talent to fill out the middle of their bullpen, and if Ross can come back to the way he used to be they have their lefties. The issue is the lack of setup options in front of Kimbrel. Kelly looks up the task right now, and it’s time to give him the chance to prove it’s not a fluke. From there, it’s up to Barnes or Hembree to step up and grab the other setup role until Carson Smith and/or Tyler Thornburg comes back. If neither of them can step up and/or Kelly goes back to his April self, Dombrowski may need to make another big move for a reliever. In addition to waiting for the injuries, there are also young pitchers in Kyle Martin and Jamie Callahan who could earn chances later in the summer. Someone needs to step up. With that in mind, this is how I’d structure the ‘pen for now while I wait for internal reinforcements.
CL Craig Kimbrel
SU1 Joe Kelly
SU2 Matt Barnes
LH1 Robby Scott
LH2 Fernando Abad until Robbie Ross is ready
MR1 Heath Hembree
MR 2 Blaine Boyer/Brandon Workman/Ben Taylor