Alex Cora has yet to manage his first meaningful game in a Red Sox uniform, but he’s already made some waves with some of the ideas he would like to implement as the top man in the dugout, and they affect the entire roster. He’d like to give position players more days off, and he’d also like to see them employ a more aggressive approach at the plate. He’s giving the starters an opportunity to ease themselves into spring training more than years prior to allow them to be more fresh through the season. His ideas in the bullpen could be the most intriguing, though. John Farrell was seen as something of an old-school manager in relief, though I think that label was a little overblown and it’s hard to argue with his results from 2017. That said, Cora’s taking things to the next level, showing a public willingness to use Kimbrel out of the ninth inning more often and declining to find a set hierarchy behind his closer. Now, he’s come out with another idea about his bullpen. In answering a question about who will make the roster, Cora indicated that the team doesn’t necessarily need to carry a southpaw in its relief corps. It’s nice that he’s not limiting himself to traditional norms, but is he taking things a bit too far this time?
To best look at this possibility for the Red Sox, it makes sense to look at the left-handers that would potentially be kept on the roster and figure out how much they’d be able to do for the big-league squad. Robby Scott is the most likely of the southpaws to start the year in Boston as he made his way to the top left-handed job in 2017. He’s not a dominant reliever by any means, but he can do really well against left-handed hitters by inducing a ton of weak contact with a side-armed delivery and slow, loopy stuff. He’s the closest thing to a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out Guy) on the Red Sox roster. Bobby Poyner has become a chic name in camp after putting up big numbers in the minors last year and carrying that success over to major-league camp. He’s another guy who relies on deception more than overpowering stuff, but he also hasn’t pitched above Double-A. I think one could very well argue that he should get some time in Triple-A before making it to the majors. Finally, there is Brian Johnson. He’s out of options, so it’s majors or another organization for him. However, with some injuries in the Red Sox rotation he’s likely to begin the year as a starter. Depending on how that goes and how long it takes the Red Sox starters to get healthy, Johnson may or may not have a spot in the bullpen waiting for him.
So, Boston has a few options from the left side, but two of them have options and aren’t so good that they are pounding down the door for a spot, and one is out of options but has a spot in the rotation to start the year. What that means is that they can weigh some other factors in deciding whether or not they should keep a lefty on the roster. The Red Sox have one big advantage on this front in a very left-handed rotation. Even with the injuries, the team projects to have four lefty starters to start the year, and that will likely (well, hopefully) be the case for most of the season. Because of that, opponents will presumably load their lineups with right-handed batters to offset the southpaws on the mound. Of course, those opponents could just then use those left-handed hitters off the bench later in games, so this advantage for the Red Sox may be a bit overblown.
Another issue to consider is how many big left-handed hitters they could come up against that would require a tough left-handed pitcher to face him. In the division, there aren’t too many as the big bats are mostly from the right side. The only big-time lefties would be Chris Davis, Greg Bird and Didi Gregorius, and even they could be debated on how much they’d require offsetting. Looking around the other rosters of presumed American League contenders doesn’t show many big left-handed bats, either. Cleveland doesn’t really have any, and neither does Houston unless you count Josh Reddick or Brian McCann, and I don’t think they’re quite on that level. The Mariners have Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, who might be below that level too, though I’d still be a little scared of them. The Angels’ big bats all come from the right side, and the Twins have Logan Morrison, and the sustainability of his 2017 performance is still up for debate. So, yeah, there’s not a whole lot of left-handed skill around the American League to worry about.
The final, and probably most important, issue is who else would be in the bullpen if not one of the lefties mentioned above. The way I look at it, the Red Sox have four absolute locks in the ‘pen right now with the last three spots relatively up for grabs. Craig Kimbrel, Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly and Carson Smith will surely be on the roster. Heath Hembree probably also has a spot to start the year, not so much due to talent but rather the fact that he is the only player in this logjam without options. That leaves two spots for Tyler Thornburg, the lefties, Brandon Workman and Austin Maddox. Thornburg will have a spot if he’s healthy enough, but I’m not anticipating that to be the case at this point.
At the end of the day, I think the Red Sox can get by without having a lefty in their bullpen to start the season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t do it. The righties in their bullpen do well enough against lefties, and there aren’t really a lot of tough lefties to face in the American League. That said, if Thornburg doesn’t start the year on the active roster, there are two spots for Workman, Maddox and one of the lefties. I’m not sure the difference between the worse of those two righties and the best of the lefties is enough to make up for the marginal advantage of having a southpaw to turn to in the bullpen. So, yeah, I think there will probably be a lefty in the Red Sox bullpen to start the season, but I also think it’s encouraging that Cora is willing to consider breaking from traditional bullpen alignments and go without one.