With just one series left in the regular season, the Red Sox have their roster mostly set depending on health. There are a lot of keys for their success in the postseason, but one could argue that the most important part of their roster is their bullpen. This has been the key to their success all year as the consistent performance of the relief corps has helped lead to all of the extra-inning wins and all of the late-game comebacks. Without those late victories, there’s no way this team would be atop the division right now. For as good as the unit has been, though, the roles beyond the closer have been fairly fluid all year. Let’s take a look at the relievers who we figure to play the most important roles in the playoff bullpen and try to figure out what they’ll do in October.
Kimbrel has been the best and most consistent reliever on the team all year, and he’s going to continue to serve as the team’s closer in the postseason. He won’t necessarily be completely tied to that role, though, or at least he shouldn’t be. While the Red Sox will certainly hold him until late in games, John Farrell has to be willing to use him earlier than the ninth if the situation calls for it and has to be willing to let him get more than three outs at a time. We’ve seen in recent playoff runs how important that can be. The good news is that Farrell has shown a willingness to use Kimbrel more liberally earlier in the year, giving us hope he’ll be willing to do so again in October.
If Kimbrel is going to hold the Greg Holland/Cody Allen role in this year’s Red Sox bullpen, Reed will be the Wade Davis/Andrew Miller. Granted, that doesn’t mean he will be that historically good, but he should serve a similar role. That means coming into the most important situations in the game whether that be in the eighth, seventh, sixth or whatever inning. Reed has had a few issues here and there since coming to the Red Sox, mostly with home runs, but for the most part he’s been dominant. He can come up with the big strikeout when it’s needed and is more trustworthy than every non-Kimbrel reliever in this bullpen. There’s little doubt he’s second in line for this group.
Here we have the newest and most intriguing reliever in the bullpen, and Price could serve a vital role. His role as a long-ish reliever who can get both righties and lefties out for multiple innings became even more important this week as starters began to struggle mightily. With more questions in the rotation, it’s becoming more likely that they will need a reliever to come in for the fourth or fifth inning and try to get them through the sixth. Price will be counted on to serve that role at least two or three times in a five-game series. Fortunately, nothing he has done since returning from the disabled list would lead anyone to believe he’s not up to the task.
Like Price, Smith was a late emerger in this group but he’s pitched very well since coming back from the disabled list and is looking a lot like his old self. It’s hard to ask too much of him after not seeing a whole lot of the righty in the regular season, but given how strong his fastball/slider combination has looked and how much stronger he’s appeared to get with every start, he could play a big short-relief role. With his ability to miss bats and induce ground balls, he could be the perfect fireman to come in and escape situations with runners on base. This would be particularly true with righties coming to the plate.
The Red Sox are going to carry seven or eight relievers for the postseason, but I would view those four as the most important. If the starters can do their job — granted, that’s far from a guarantee — then those four would be the only relievers to appear. The other pitchers still have roles to play, though. Joe Kelly will likely be the top reliever to appear in middle relief when Smith is unavailable. Robby Scott will serve as the left-handed specialist. Matt Barnes could come in when a strikeout is needed. Whichever starter between Rick Porcello and Doug Fister doesn’t make the rotation should serve as the long reliever, particularly on days in which Price is unavailable. Bullpens get shorter when the playoffs start, and the Red Sox are well-served to have some key arms in those roles. It will be a little shakier when they get beyond that top four, but that can be said of every team. If any part of the Red Sox roster has earned the benefit of the doubt, it’s Boston’s bullpen, and that is the case from the top to the bottom.