The Red Sox have had an outstanding start to their season, winning five of their first six games all on the road, even if things haven’t been perfect. While the offense has left plenty to be desired early on, the pitching staff has been phenomenal. Boston’s rotation has gotten most of the headlines, and every single one of those headlines is deserved, but the bullpen hasn’t been half-bad either. That being said, there is an air of uncertainty around the late innings, particularly in the lead-up to Craig Kimbrel at the end of games. This relief unit was always going to be a high-risk, high-reward unit, and after Dave Dombrowski opted to leave the group as-is this winter rather than making some sort of addition, it wasn’t terribly difficult to envision the group being a downfall of the roster. It’s way too early to make any definitive statements about anyone in baseball, but it’s worth looking at how things stand in the late-innings, excluding Kimbrel because he has more or less looked like the elite reliever we all expect him to be.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that Smith is the number two reliever in this bullpen right now, both in the minds of the fans and in the mind of Alex Cora. Of course, it’s the latter mind that really matters here — no offense, you all matter to me — and the Red Sox manager has turned to Smith multiple times in tough situations. Obviously, it did not go so well on Opening Day when he couldn’t clean up Joe Kelly’s mess, and his inability to throw strikes in that spot was discouraging. Fortunately, that hasn’t turned into a recurring issue in his next two starts. Even better, the righty’s stuff has looked great as he looks to get back to his old form two seasons removed from Tommy John surgery. His fastball velocity is up a tick from last season and right in line with where it was when he was so dominant in 2015. It’s also getting the movement you look for from his heater and is a big reason he’s inducing ground balls at a high rate. On top of that, his slider is pure filth, getting almost unfathomable movement early in the year. These are all very good signs that Smith can be the guy we were all hoping he’d be when he was acquired prior to that 2016 season, even if there’s still a little work to do.
If, on August 1, you were to tell me that Matt Barnes was off the roster, I wouldn’t be all that surprised. If, on August 1, you were to tell me that Matt Barnes was the clear number two in the bullpen behind Craig Kimbrel, I wouldn’t be all that surprised. The fact is that the righty has huge talent and he’s shown that he can miss bats at the highest level. That’s a big deal! Cora, for what it’s worth, seems to like him a lot, too, tasking him with big situations all season and generally turning to Barnes in the sixth/seventh/eighth inning range when the middle of the opponent’s lineup is coming up. Bullpen roles are obviously fluid and these things will change multiple times over the course of a season, but Barnes certainly had the confidence of his manager coming out of camp. The righty did the job in his first few outings, providing some late-inning stability. He showed off the downside of Matt Barnes on Tuesday, though. In a high-leverage spot trying to close out a game in extra innings on the road, he lost his control and eventually coughed up the lead. He can thank Andrew Benintendi for throwing out the winning run for the lack of an L in the box score. No one game is overly concerning for anyone, but the fact that Barnes has struggled in high-leverage situations in his career and that he had a rough time on the road in 2017 makes that appearance feel a bit more significant. Barnes has acknowledged his issues on the road, and one would have to assume he and the coaching staff are trying to figure out ways for him to stay even-keeled in these situations so he just throws strikes. If he does that, he’ll be just fine.
Of all the Red Sox relievers, Joe Kelly has caught the ire of the Red Sox fanbase the most, which makes sense considering he was most responsible for the team’s lone loss early in the year. No set of statistics at this point of the year are reliable, so it’s not worth it to show you how ugly Kelly’s numbers look so far. That being said, even just watching him he doesn’t look the same. Although there was likely some luck involved in his 2017 performance, he also induced plenty of weak contact on the ground, and that’s a recipe for success for any pitcher. This year, through three outings, Kelly has induced just one ground ball while also struggling to find the strike zone. It’s worth noting that the righty is apparently opting to use his two-seam over his four-seam early this season, hoping that a sacrifice of velocity for movement will pay dividends. This is a great idea in theory and one that he probably shouldn’t abandon yet, but at a certain point the strikes need to come. For now, Kelly is clearly the third option in this trio of righties, and he’s being used that way as most of his action has come against the weakest parts of his opponents’ lineups.
Bobby Poyner almost certainly should not be included in this post, but I am putting him here anyway because I don’t adhere to societal norms. The lefty was one of the last players to make the roster, but he’s been very impressive early on after being very impressive in camp after being very impressive in the minors in 2017. That’s a lot of impressing! Poyner has, thus far, succeeded in a normal one-inning stint (well, sort of. He looked fine but also gave up a solo homer.), as a literal LOOGY who threw one pitch in the outing, and in a multi-inning outing in which he was tasked with both righties and lefties. For all of the talk about how the Red Sox don’t need a lefty in their bullpen — and they don’t — it’s certainly better if they have one. Poyner isn’t quite a legitimate late-inning arm yet, but he’s almost there. At some point, probably soon, he’s going to struggle in a big spot and possibly even cost the team a game. How he comes back from that kind of performance will go a long way towards determining what kind of role he can play later in the year.