The question of “How will the Red Sox replace David Ortiz?” has always been misguided. That’s partially because nobody can replace Ortiz player for player — on the field or off of it. But most importantly, this team wasn’t designed with the necessity of having a single player replace Ortiz in the lineup. Hanley Ramirez would take over most of the DH duties, with some more flexibility in that spot than in years past, and Mitch Moreland would take over the majority of the first base role. But the 2017 iteration of this roster wasn’t supposed to score a league-high 878 runs, smash 208 home runs, and hit .282 — and that’s pretty clear from the early season results. Though the offense isn’t as bad as the team that scored 13 runs over the course of seven games in late April, it also won’t be as good as the team that has mashed 28 over its last two. The roster construction is different than last year’s team, and was designed to win a different way.
A big part of that difference — and a major reason this team is still three games over .500, despite having an offense that has grossly underachieved for much of the season — lies in the bullpen. Though it inconveniently contradicts the narrative of Dombrowski’s bullpen incompetence, and though sometimes you feel uncomfortable when guys like Heath Hembree and Robby Scott are getting high-leverage appearances, the bullpen is a pillar of this team and will take some amount of pressure off the offense going forward.
The Red Sox currently have the third best bullpen ERA (2.31) and seventh best FIP (3.06) in baseball. That starts — and more aptly, ends — with Craig Kimbrel and the type of season he is putting together. In Kimbrel’s Braves years he was among the most dominant pitchers in baseball, finishing with four all-star appearances and four top-10 Cy Young finishes in his five seasons in Atlanta. He appears to be returning to that form this season, and has been crucial to the bullpen’s success.
Kimbrel’s ERA (1.31) is the best he’s had since 2013, and his FIP (0.86) is creeping up on the best season of his career. What might be most encouraging in the early season from Kimbrel, though, is his strikeout rate. It had taken a dip from his early career numbers, and came along with whispers that he’d never return to his prime. After striking out 16.7 batters per nine innings in 2012, he dipped to the 13s more consistently (13.2, 13.9, 13.2, 14.1) — certainly strong numbers, but hardly elite from a guy whose pitching style is predicated on overpowering hitters. This season, that number is back up to 16.7, with a killer combination of the highest average fastball velocity of his career (98.0), and the lowest walk rate of his career (1.3 walks per nine innings). Coming off a postseason in which dominant relievers had unprecedented value, Kimbrel is firmly among the elite relievers in baseball.
As it currently stands, there isn’t another reliever in the pen who you could say, with certainty, will be on a potential postseason roster. Heath Hembree has become their most consistent reliever outside of Kimbrel,.Robby Scott has dominated lefties. Joe Kelly has actually been pretty good at times (despite, in classic Joe Kelly fashion, still having more walks than strikeouts).
Yet part of that uncertainty, and the source of most of my optimism, is that this bullpen is far from finished. With varying degrees of success, the Red Sox have rarely been strangers to midseason moves to shore up the bullpen in anticipation of a postseason run. In 2013, they dealt for Matt Thornton (who failed to make the postseason roster). In 2014 they dealt for Heath Hembree, and just last season they dealt for Brad Ziegler at the deadline.
But this season those “acquisitions” will come in-house, and they could massively shift the balance of power in the American League. An already strong bullpen will be getting Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg back in the coming weeks/months, and, depending on their health, could turn a strong bullpen into a dominant one.
In his last full season, Smith was one of the elite relievers in baseball — striking out 11.8 batters per nine innings with a 2.12 FIP. Smith is still just 27 years old and, health permitting, he should be a major factor in this bullpen not only this season but in years to come. When he comes back — hopefully by the end of next month — he will likely step in and become the second best arm in the bullpen right away.
That is, unless the second best bullpen arm is Tyler Thornburg. Thornburg, who also hopes to be back in June, was acquired in the deal with Milwaukee for Travis Shaw and Mauricio Dubon and figured to be a lynchpin for the Red Sox in the late innings. He, too, is a strikeout pitcher who showed wipeout stuff with the Brewers last season — his 12.1 K/9 in 2016 appealing to a Red Sox organization that has become more strikeout-focused under Dombrowski.
With those two in tow, the patchwork bullpen could go from:*
*Give or take some at the bottom, given health and performance.
All of a sudden that bullpen depth is a major asset designed to immediately alleviate pressure off an offense that has clearly felt it at times. It may not be 2016 Indians, nor does it quite have the top-heavy firepower of the 2016 (first-half) Yankees. But, assuming health and production from Smith and Thornburg, that bullpen becomes a weapon
not even John Farrell could mismanage.
How do you replace David Ortiz?
Add Chris Sale, Tyler Thornburg, and Carson Smith, and discover a different way to win.