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Can Brandon Workman be a bullpen X-Factor?

Brandon Workman has come all the way back from Tommy John. Is he up in the majors to stay?

MLB: Game One-New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been a lot of discussion around the Red Sox bullpen lately, and I find it fascinating. Two camps have been created based on what the team should do with respect to its relief corps as we approach the trade deadline. The easy answer is that it sure would be nice to get another late-inning arm into the mix, which is something that could realistically be said about any team in the league. Still, there are some who look at the numbers the Red Sox bullpen has put up this season and see a unit that is doing just fine without reinforcements. Others see the inconsistencies of Matt Barnes and Heath Hembree as well as the healthy of Joe Kelly and see the need for someone else.

Really, it’s those in-house options that are going to shape how much help, if any, this bullpen really needs. If Joe Kelly can get healthy sooner rather than later and is able to pitch on back-to-back days, he’s proven he can be a solid setup option for this team. Barnes has been underrated by the fanbase in this writer’s opinion, but it’s hard to just dismiss his career-long problems in high-leverage situations. If we’re being honest, I’m really not sure how to reconcile those issues. Then there’s Carson Smith. A couple of years ago he was one of the best relievers in all of baseball, but he obviously hasn’t been healthy since coming to Boston. A recovery down the stretch could be like a trade acquisition for the Red Sox, but whether or not they can count on that is hard to determine right now.

MLB: Boston Red Sox-Workouts Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Then, there’s Brandon Workman, who like Smith came back from Tommy John surgery but is a year ahead of him on the mend. Based on what we’ve seen in his few major-league outings, it seems like Workman is all the way back, and that could be a huge boost for this Red Sox bullpen.

If you’ll recall, Workman was electric out of the bullpen for the Red Sox in 2013, striking out over ten batters per nine innings out of the bullpen down the stretch for that team then tossing 8 23 scoreless innings in that postseason en route to a World Series victory. They tried him as a starter the next year, and it didn’t really work, but he still succeeded when used as a reliever. Since then, he’s missed a couple of seasons but, as mentioned above, he is back now. The stuff appears to be all the way back and he’s back to being used on something close to a regular workload.

Despite his stuff looking all the way back, there hasn’t really been room for Workman on the major-league roster. Thus, he’s spent the majority of the year down in Pawtucket, where he’s been mostly phenomenal. Over 29 innings of work in 18 appearances, the righty has pitched to a 1.55 ERA with a 2.74 FIP and a 2.55 DRA. He can still struggle with control at times as he has 13 walks in that time (four per nine innings), but the 35 strikeouts in 29 innings (10.9 per nine) is phenomenal. He’s only made five appearances at the major-league level, but three of them have been scoreless and he has a 2.89 ERA.

You’ll notice that he doesn’t quite have the same strikeout numbers in the majors as the rates he’s put up in the minors. Obviously, this is hard to get overly upset about given the size of the sample at the major-league level. Additionally, the good ol’ eye test shows you that he has utilized impressive stuff, including a mid-90s fastball. That has allowed him to miss plenty of bats, with a swinging strike rate that is nearly the same as what he put up in a much larger sample back in 2013. He’s also missing more bats on pitches in the zone than he ever has before, and as I’ve said before that is probably my favorite test of a pitcher’s stuff. All three of Workman’s pitches have been working, too, as his fastball, his curveball and his cutter have all induced whiffs over ten percent of the time.

In the end, we haven’t really seen enough for Workman to be a justification for not trading for an extra relief arm. That being said, he’s starting to show that he can be a surprise down the stretch. That was something that worked extremely well in 2013, and the hope is that history will repeat itself in 2017.