You know what they say about assuming, but it seems to be a fairly safe assumption that the Red Sox are looking for bullpen help. The caliber of reliever they are targeting and the number of relievers they could add is up for debate, but it seems likely that any more additions to the major-league roster will come in the bullpen. They’ve been connected to just about every big name in the market, but then reports this week about them being concerned about payroll threw things for a loop. It’s still hard to believe they wouldn’t do anything to boost their bullpen, especially after officially losing Joe Kelly and likely losing Craig Kimbrel at some point soon. Let’s just imagine the possibility for a minute, though. What would a Red Sox bullpen without any additions even look like?
Before we get into the current state of Boston’s relief corps, I want to emphasize that this is not me saying the Red Sox shouldn’t sign anyone or that they can get away with not doing it. I agree they need at least one arm not currently in the organization, and there’s certainly an argument for more additions than that. However, taking a look at how things stand now can give us a better idea of what kind of reliever they need and/or how many relievers they could use.
We’ll split this up by categories in the bullpen, starting with back-end arms. Generally speaking, this is where people see the most room for improvement, which makes sense because it’s the most important part of the bullpen. Right now, the Red Sox have two guys in whom they seem to have plenty of confidence. Both Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier have been mentioned by Dave Dombrowski as pitchers he could see in the closer role. The former, despite constant questioning of his ability by a large section of the fanbase, has been very good for two consecutive years and was near-elite in 2018. You’d like more consistent control, but Barnes is a legitimate back-end arm and gives the Red Sox a decent floor for their top arm even without an addition.
Brasier, meanwhile, is more of a question mark just because of his relative lack of track record. It’s hard to argue with what he did last year — you’d like more strikeouts, but if he can keep his command you can live with the roughly eight K’s per nine innings — but it was only 33 2⁄3 innings plus the postseason. Teams will have a winter to make adjustments, and you never know how that will go. If everything goes pretty much perfectly, Barnes and Brasier is a solid one-two punch, but there are legitimate question marks plus the fact that you’d like more than two arms of this caliber.
Beyond the back-end, however, the Red Sox have some depth at the other (admittedly less important) spots. First and foremost is in terms of long relief. Obviously, having a lot of long relievers is sort of like bragging about having eaten everything on the Applebees menu, but hey it’s something! With Brian Johnson, Hector Velazquez and Steven Wright the Red Sox have three guys who can go multiple innings when needed. To be fair, these are not just mop-up arms, at least in the eyes of the Red Sox. Wright was supposed to serve a key role in the postseason bullpen before his injury kept him out of the October festivities, while both Johnson and Velazquez were trusted in important situations throughout the regular season. The biggest question here is whether or not all three will be able to fit on the roster this year, but that of course depends on any possible additions.
Then, there’s the straight-up middle relievers, or the guys who aren’t quite good enough to serve surefire high-leverage roles but also aren’t quite long relievers. For the Red Sox, that means Heath Hembree and Tyler Thornburg. Neither of these righties are held in the highest esteem among Red Sox fans, and for good reason. I still think Hembree is better than he’s given credit for, but his inconsistency and propensity for hard contact makes him hard to rely on in a perfect role. Thornburg, meanwhile, showed small flashes in 2018 but really only has one great season as a reliever and that was three years ago now. If they both pitch to their peak potential for a full season they could join that Barnes/Brasier tier and give the Red Sox a legitimate group in the late innings, but no one could really count on that happening at this point.
If you’re looking for encouragement about the Red Sox current crop of relievers, and if you’re looking for any sort of argument that they could survive later in the year without any sort of addition, it comes from the depth in the minors. That includes guys who have already appeared in the major in some form and a few who haven’t made that leap quite yet. Bobby Poyner heads the group after being the top story out of spring training last year and surprisingly making the Opening Day roster. The fact that he had minor-league options kept him in the minors for most of 2018, but if he impresses this spring like he did last year, it’s hard to see them keeping him down for another year. Then, there’s the threesome of Travis Lakins, Durbin Feltman and Darwinzon Hernandez. It would be surprising (to me, at least) if any of these three made the Opening Day roster, but they represent the most upside of anyone outside of Barnes for 2018 and could be up by mid-season if everything goes perfectly. Hernandez is probably the biggest longshot just because he’s going to start the year in Portland’s rotation, but all three have legitimate late-inning potential.
In an absolutely perfect world, I believe the Red Sox could get by with any sort of addition to the bullpen. As long as Barnes doesn’t take any step back, Brasier isn’t hurt by league adjustments, Thornburg looks like his 2015 self, Hembree can limit home runs and all three of Feltman, Lakins and Hernandez seamlessly make their way to the highest level, the Red Sox could have a strong bullpen. Unfortunately, it’s borderline impossible for that many things to go right in this bullpen. There’s certainly no way a team could bet on it.
Right now, the only players who are locks to be on this pitching staff to start the year are Barnes and Brasier, and everyone else is enough of a question that you could make an argument for them to be off the roster. That includes Wright, whose biggest question right now is health. To me, the Red Sox would be better off adding two more sure things to that group, but they absolutely need at least one. Boston has some talent and it’s easy to see this group of relievers being good in 2020 if everything goes right, but for now they certainly need some help late in games, which we already knew.