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Craig Kimbrel’s usage and some possible solutions

Craig Kimbrel’s usage has been thrilling, but also possibly a problem.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Chicago White Sox Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox bullpen, for all of their solid results this year, still doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence. There have been good performances from all over the unit, but the consistency hasn’t always been there and the track record definitely isn’t there, for the most part. To this point, there’s been but one shining light in the unit and that’s Craig Kimbrel. We all know how amazing he’s been, with his 1.01 ERA and his strikeout rate of 18 per nine innings, or two per inning. That is, in a word, bananas.

There is, unfortunately, the issue of the closer’s usage. This has been a big story around the team of late, and it’s only gained steam in the last few days after he was forced to record four outs in his last outing. These multi-inning stints have become much more frequent for the former Brave and Padre this season, as he already has as many in 2017 (five) as he did all of last season. It’s not John Farrell’s — or Kimbrel’s, for that matter — preferred manner of bullpen usage, but it’s been necessary given the lack of trust among the other late-inning arms in the bullpen.

On the one hand, personally, I love this kind of usage. It’s something that many fans have been calling for from Farrell (and other managers around the league). Specifically, it’s nice to see less rigid management of the bullpen and being willing to mix and match roles based on matchups and situation. Kimbrel is easily the best bullpen arm on the roster, and using him when he’s most needed is advantageous.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

On the other hand, this kind of usage can backfire. We saw it a lot in the postseason last year with guys like Andrew Miller and Kenley Jansen, but October is a different story. Exerting that kind of usage over a full season can have lasting effects. Right now, Kimbrel is on pace for 75 23 innings over the course of a 162-game season, which would be the second most he’s ever thrown and the most he’s thrown since his rookie year in 2011. The same can be said for the number of pitches he’s thrown. It goes without saying that, if the Red Sox are going to do everything they want to over the course of this season, they can’t have Kimbrel wear down as the year goes on. So, with that in mind, let’s look at a few solutions for how to solve the issue.

The first is to simply go back to traditional usage, with Kimbrel only appearing in the ninth inning. In order for this to work, Farrell and the Red Sox would need to entrust the eighth inning with one or more pitchers that haven’t entirely earned it. Personally, I’d go with Joe Kelly as the primary setup man, but it seems the Red Sox are set on Matt Barnes. It seemed like Kelly may have leap-frogged Barnes given the former’s usage against the heart of New York’s lineup on Tuesday, but last night Barnes was announced as the closer with Kimbrel unavailable. Either way, I don’t think Barnes is trustworthy enough right now that Farrell can completely abandon the idea of going to Kimbrel in the eighth if/when Barnes gets into trouble.

The next option is to, when necessary, use Kimbrel in the eighth inning and then go with someone else in the ninth. This, of course, would allow the best reliever to be used in the most important situations while also saving Kimbrel from overuse. In a vacuum, this is easily the best option. There are plenty of times in which the most important situation will come in the eighth, but the save statistic often keeps the best reliever out of that spot. On the one hand, I understand it from the manager’s perspective. The player wants saves, and the manager wants to keep everyone happy. However, baseball is changing. Kimbrel is no longer subject to arbitration, and those are the only players who really get paid based on saves. Teams around the league have proven time and again that they are willing to pay good relievers whether or not they’ve recorded saves in the past. Now, it’s easier said than done getting a player to abandon what he’s come up believing, but if Farrell and the organization can convince Kimbrel this role change won’t affect his future paychecks, then this is the best course of action.

Finally, there is simply waiting around and keeping the status quo until Carson Smith returns. The former Mariner setup man, of course, is on his way back from the disabled list and should be able to start a rehab assignment within the next week or so, meaning he could possibly return at some point this month. The hope is that he’ll be able to be placed right into the eighth inning and give Boston a 1-2 punch at the back of the ‘pen that can rival just about any in the league. If Smith is the same guy he was two years ago, that will be the case. Of course, this plan can be risky since we don’t know that Smith will be the same guy. There’s always a chance he’s taken a major step back after missing the last year-and-a-half. If that’s the case, we’re right back where we started with Kimbrel’s usage not changing one bit. Even with the risks, though, there may not be a better option.

At the end of the day, the best option for the Red Sox is likely number two. As I said, though, convincing Kimbrel that saves don’t matter anymore may be easier said than done. You’d like him to serve whatever role he’s needed for, but it’s not always that simple. As such, they may need to go with option three, even with the risk that Smith won’t fix anything. Whatever they choose to do, it’s imperative that Kimbrel stay as fresh as possible through the season. He’s been electric in 2017 and one of the big reasons the Red Sox are near the top of the division. They’ll need him if they want to continue to rise up the standings.