For the most part, the Red Sox bullpen is essentially set for the Red Sox, assuming they can make it to the ALDS. Generally speaking, teams carry eleven pitchers into the postseason, and four of those are starting pitchers. That leaves seven relievers, often including the number five starter that did not make the playoff rotation. That leaves room for six relievers, but in Boston’s case it could mean five in the scenario where David Price comes back as a reliever. Either way, Craig Kimbrel, Addison Reed, Brandon Workman, Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes appear to be locks to make the roster in my eyes. There may be some disagreement if they are all worthy, but based on how they’ve been used this year I’d be surprised to see someone else jump ahead of them.
That being said, there are a couple of righties that only joined the bullpen on a full-time basis in September that have the potential to jump into the conversation if they continue their current strong run of pitching. To be clear, it’s not something I’m expecting, but it’s possible. That alone is surprising and encouraging. Carson Smith and Austin Maddox have both been impressive in small samples, have outperformed my personal expectations for them, and at the very least are putting themselves in a position to be key figures in 2018.
We’ll start with Smith, as he’s clearly the bigger name of this pair. The righty, of course, was acquired prior to the 2016 season along with Roenis Elias in exchange for Wade Miley and Jonathan Aro in what has become an extremely underrated trade from Dave Dombrowski. He immediately suffered an arm injury in his first spring training with the team and after a very brief comeback in the middle of 2016 he underwent Tommy John surgery. He’s finally back now and has made two appearances with the big-league team this month.
Obviously, this is not the most representative sample to know what to expect from him, but he has tossed a couple of scoreless innings in which he has a couple of strikeouts, no walks and has allowed two singles.
There are some concerns for Smith, though they don’t appear to be as big of a deal in his first two appearances than I anticipated they would be. Throughout his minor-league rehab assignment, we heard how the righty’s velocity wasn’t where it was before the injury and how he wasn’t able to get swinging strikes. Both of those have held true in the majors, with his fastball down a little more than one mph compared to 2015. Furthermore, despite having a couple of strikeouts he’s yet to induce a swinging strike. This could be a potential sign for danger. However, he still has his slider, which looks incredible and has been enough to get by. He’ll need his fastball to get back to where he was in 2015 when he was one of the best relievers in baseball, of course, but for now he has a slider to make batters take strikes and to induce ground balls. At some point this month some team will hit him well and get some runs against the righty, but in terms of how he looks on the mound (and specifically how his slider looks) he’s ahead of where I expected and could be near the top of the reserve list in the bullpen.
Then, there’s Maddox. While I wasn’t expecting too much from Smith, there was still a small part of me that was cautiously optimistic and saw a strong run through September as a possibility. In Maddox’ case, I didn’t see him as anything more than a mop-up guy. This is a pitcher I have seen a few times in the minors, plus in some short stints in the majors this year. His stuff never really jumped out at me, if I’m being honest. I’m not sure if his stuff has improved, if I just misjudged his talent, or if it was a little of both (probably that), but the righty has been impressive this month.
Maddox, in the midst of his third stint with the Red Sox this year, has made five appearances in the month of September since coming up on the first day rosters expanded. He has yet to allow a run or a walk in the 5 2⁄3 innings he has worked and has allowed just two hits while striking out five batters. He’s been able to pound the strike zone while still getting swings and misses 20 percent of the time. The righty is still mostly a fastball/changeup pitcher, but he’s mixed in some sliders this month and they have been impressive. Generally speaking, his 95 mph fastball has been more of a contact pitch, but it’s done a good job of inducing ground balls. The secondaries, meanwhile, have been mightily effective in inducing swings and misses.
Like Smith ahead of him, there would likely have to be a chain reaction of events to get him to pitch in October. That’s not a knock on Maddox as much as a dose of reality with how much the back of the bullpen has established itself — again, just based on usage rather than performance, at times. Still, as someone who has been relatively low on Maddox compared to many, I’ve totally come around and could very well see him being a key piece of this bullpen from day one in 2018. Between him and Smith, the Red Sox have found some more helpful pieces for the stretch run this year and possible late-inning relievers for next year.