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The Red Sox could have a midlevel pitching logjam

There are no stars here, but a lot of midlevel pitchers are vying for a few roster spots.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Red Sox are in a bit of a strange place with their bullpen, the portion of their roster that is understandably generating the most discussion at this point in the offseason. Most (all?) agree that this is the last remaining area where Boston needs any sort of significant help, obviously excluding possible minor-league depth signings at other positions. The Red Sox aren’t just looking for depth in the bullpen. They are likely to look at or near the top of the market for help. It’s looking more and more like they are probably out on Craig Kimbrel — I’m still not entirely sure I buy it, but that’s a conversation for another day — but other names among the top of the market like Adam Ottavino and David Robertson have been connected to Boston. The point being, it would be very surprising if the Red Sox didn’t add at least one more arm to their bullpen. There is one portion of this that hasn’t been discussed, and while it certainly shouldn’t have any bearing on their decision of who to sign it may need to be reckoned with at one point or another.

What I’m speaking of is a group of midlevel pitchers who will be vying for the last few spots on the Opening Day pitching staff, all of whom are out of minor-league options. Again, it needs to be noted that these are not pitchers who should prevent the team from targeting a guy like Ottavino or Robertson, among others. Plus, I’ll note right away that these are also the types of situations that tend to sort themselves out one way or another. Still, it’s something that could come into play in a few months and I’ll freely admit there’s not much else to talk about right now. It could also play a role in the Red Sox deciding whether or not they should add more than one reliever to the fold to replace both Kimbrel and Joe Kelly.

Divisional Round - New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox - Game Two
Heath Hembree
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

So, let’s take a look at all the of pitchers who are going to enter the 2019 season without any minor-league options, meaning they can’t be sent down to Pawtucket without first being exposed to waivers. The way I see it, there are three categories of Red Sox pitchers right now: Middle relievers without options, long relievers without options, and pitchers with options. In the first subset, you have the trio of Tyler Thornburg, Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman. This is a really interesting group, with Thornburg having shown the highest ceiling in the majors, Hembree being the closest to a major-league mainstay, and Workman arguably being the most consistently trustworthy right now. None of these three are real threats to be true setup men right now, and all are on the wrong side of 30 (or will be once the season begins), but each has merits to be in the majors and could easily be claimed off waivers.

The next group includes two pitchers who could serve valuable roles for the Red Sox this year. We know that Alex Cora likes to rest his players, and that will be of particular importance for his starting pitchers in 2019 after their heavy workload last year. In fact, the manager already indicated he’ll start the year with a six-man rotation for the first turn. I would suspect that won’t be the only time he does that in 2019. I’d also expect Cora to pull some of his starters earlier than expected, especially to start the year. All of that means the Red Sox will need extra length from their pitching staff, which means rostering one or two long relievers at minimum. The Red Sox have two of those who are out of options in Steven Wright and Brian Johnson. Obviously, those two represent the top rotation depth options along with being spot starters and long relievers.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox
Steven Wright
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Finally, you have a whole host of pitchers with options, but they aren’t all realistic candidates to start the year in the minors. For example, Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes both have a couple of option remaining, but they are also the top two pitchers in the bullpen right now. They aren’t getting demoted to preserve depth. Hector Velazquez is more realistic to be sent to Pawtucket, but he also just spent the entire 2018 season in the majors. It’s rare for guys like that to then be sent to the minors on Opening Day, though that shouldn’t be how decisions are made. Then there are guys like Bobby Poyner, Colten Brewer, Travis Lakins and Josh Taylor who are on the 40-man but are more than likely going to start the year in Pawtucket just because of the numbers game.

So, where does that leave the bullpen? Right now, there are two players with options guaranteed a spot if healthy in Barnes and Brasier. Then there is one addition coming that we assume is guaranteed. So, unless the Red Sox play with a short bench — and that is unlikely — that leaves four spots left for the five out-of-options pitchers in the event Velazquez is demoted. All they’d need is one injury in spring training to make that work. Obviously they wouldn’t want that, but it wouldn’t be unexpected.

If they do decide to keep Velazquez, however, or if they decide to add two relievers, or if they somehow stay completely healthy through camp, decisions will need to be made. I don’t think these pitchers are good enough to prevent the team from wanting to sign more than one reliever, but obviously their decision-makers could disagree. So, what’s the order of how they’d prioritize these out-of-options pitchers? In order of most likely to be kept to least likely, I’d rank them Wright, Workman, Hembree, Johnson, Thornburg. What say you?