The Red Sox had a setup man problem prior to Monday’s trade for Addison Reed, even if the numbers didn’t really back that claim up. Matt Barnes has been impressive more often than not this year, but between his control issues and his strange problems in the highest leverage situations it was hard to trust him as an eighth inning arm in a playoff race. Joe Kelly was starting to really turn it on prior to hitting the disabled list, and they were ready to get him pitching in back-to-back days. I’d assume he’s not in that place anymore, and they couldn’t count on him as an eighth inning arm before seeing what he looked like upon leaving the disabled list. Now, both of those guys move down the depth chart and are left in roles that are much better suited for their skillset. In fact, Reed’s addition — along with some pitchers getting healthy — has this Red Sox bullpen looking pretty damn good.
Obviously, the very back of the unit is staying exactly the same. Craig Kimbrel has been one of the very best closers in all of baseball and there’s no reason to believe that will change at all moving forward. If anything, the addition of Reed to the bullpen will make it even more likely Kimbrel can remain this dominant. With the question marks surrounding guys like Barnes and Kelly, among others, Boston has had to lean very heavily on their closer. Reed (hopefully) rids them of the temptation for putting Kimbrel in for the eighth inning, and the former Mets closer should be able to give Kimbrel more days off, too.
In the eighth, and again we have no surprise here, Reed steps right in perfectly. He’s already shown that he can handle a closer gig, so there’s no mental reason he shouldn’t be able to handle the role. There are some concerns about his workload and his flyball tendencies, but there’s too much good to be overly worried. He’s not going to give away free passes to first base, which as we’ve seen from Barnes can be the biggest killer for a late-game reliever. He’s also put up fantastic results for the last two years. Kimbrel/Reed now joins the ranks of some of the other formidable one-two punches around the league.
After Reed, things get a little more complicated, but there’s also less of a need for strictly defined roles. (Note: There’s never really any need for strictly defined roles, but for the late innings that’s simply the world we live in.) For now, Matt Barnes figures to play the fireman role earlier in the game. If the Red Sox find themselves in a big spot in which they need a strikeout, Barnes will be the guy they call upon. Despite his blow-up in his last outing, the 27-year-old is well-suited for this role given his strikeout rate (over ten strikeouts per nine innings) and groundball rate (over 50 percent). With a swinging strike rate over 30 percent (per Baseball Prospectus), there’s plenty of reason to believe in that strikeout stuff.
Although he’s not here now, Kelly will also be joining Barnes in this role soon, and possible as soon as this weekend.
Fireball Joe Kelly faced hitters today at Fenway. Rehab game on Wednesday with Pawtucket. Theoretically back over weekend.— Pete Abraham (@PeteAbe) July 31, 2017
This is a huge boost for the bullpen, as Kelly gives them a bigger track record of inducing ground balls and has shown the ability to be dominant in shorter stints. He hasn’t been that dominant all year, but he was certainly settling in before he hit the disabled list. John Farrell indicated that Kelly was to be his primary eighth inning before the injury, and after a couple of strong outings upon his return he’ll probably be moved ahead of Barnes on the depth chart again. If anything, he gives them another hard thrower to add into the mix late in games.
Joining Barnes and Kelly in this high-leverage middle relief role is Brandon Workman, who has emerged over the last couple of weeks as one of Farrell’s most trusted arms in the bullpen. He certainly looks like he’s all the way back after undergoing Tommy John surgery a couple of years ago, and the results have backed that up. It is worth noting that his velocity has fallen in his last couple of outings, so he’s someone to keep an eye on. For now, though, he joins Barnes and Kelly as their three-headed monster behind Kimbrel and Reed.
Rounding out the group is a group of four, two of whom will have to go by the time Kelly returns. The group is Robby Scott, Fernando Abad, Blaine Boyer and Heath Hembree. Scott has already been demoted for Austin Maddox — who will presumably be optioned to make room for Reed — and it stands to reason they’ll keep Abad as the lefty in the bullpen for the time being. If Abad starts to struggle, they’ll likely make a change but he’s been surprisingly solid of late.
As for the righties, it’s a tougher call as both pitchers have been solid at times and neither can be optioned. It’s always possible that either Workman or Barnes could be optioned upon Kelly’s return, but that would surprise me given how much Farrell has begun to trust them this year. Despite the fact that he’s been shockingly solid since coming to Boston, my guess is that Kelly’s return will mean the end of the road for Boyer. He hasn’t really been worse than Hembree, but the latter has more upside and can thrive in a role where he only has to face right-handed batters. Plus, there’s probably more of a chance of a future with the organization for Hembree.
So, here is the final group when Kelly returns from the disabled list.
That’s a formidable unit with pitchers now in roles that are in line with their talent level. It gets even better, too. While this certainly isn’t something that can be counted upon, Carson Smith is throwing bullpens again and could be ready for a rehab assignment relatively soon. If, by the grace of Papi, he is able to return and look close to what he looked like in Seattle, this group moves from good to great. Hembree would likely find himself out of the picture, with everyone under Reed moving down one spot. At this point that’s probably wishful thinking, but it’s fun to think about that bullpen for the postseason, particularly with someone like Eduardo Rodriguez added to the group as well.