If you believe the tealeaves that can be read by following reporters — both national and local — on the ol’ twittersphere, there is every reason to believe the Red Sox are targeting relief help on the trade market. They have been connected to just about every name out there, including guys like Zach Britton, Joakim Soria and Ryan Pressly, all of whom have moved on to other clubs. The options are starting to dwindle a bit, but there are still plenty of potential targets out there and it seems much more likely than not that Dave Dombrowski and company will land a reliever at some point in the next four days. It makes sense that they are targeting these kinds of arms, and it’s exactly what they should be doing. Generally speaking, every contender every year should be looking for another arm for their bullpen. Hell, you needn’t look further than the Yankees trading for Britton for evidence of that.
There’s a very big difference between acknowledging the logic behind adding bullpen help and saying it’s a disaster, however. Earlier this week, Bryan wrote about brainworms and not worrying about the bullpen, and I think he was spot on. Now, the unit has continued to struggle in the handful of games since then, and there’s no denying that struggling at this particular point on the calendar puts them under a microscope. That being said, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the current crop of relievers, both for the remainder of the regular season as well as looking ahead to the postseason.
Now, again — and I’m going to keep sprinkling this message in here — this is not saying they can’t fit another good reliever! It’s simply saying they already have a good unit, as evidenced by ranking as one of the top units in the league by just about every metric. In the back, they have a legitimate one-two punch in Craig Kimbrel and Matt Barnes. Both guys have looked a bit shakier than usual of late, and both can lose control at times, but much more often they have shown some of the best strikeout stuff in the game (they rank 8 and 9 among qualified relievers in K%) who also regularly limit hard contact. On the whole, they’ve been among the top five percent of pitchers in baseball this year by DRA. That’ll work.
It’s once you get beyond those two that the questions really start to arise, and much of that is entirely fair. There are some real question marks here, but it seems the pendulum has swung so far as to not acknowledge the upside. If you’re going to play up the doom and gloom worst-case scenario, the other side of the coin has to at least have its existence acknowledged, no?
Heath Hembree has been excellent in his role as a fireman, regularly getting out of jams with runners on base. His overall numbers suggest he’d be just fine in a more traditional setup role, too. Joe Kelly has been awful for about two months now and I’d be lying if I said I was very confident in him. However, it was earlier this year when he looked dominant and was being mentioned as a potential Craig Kimbrel replacement. (I always thought that was a little extreme, for whatever that may be worth.) To completely dismiss the possibility of him getting back to pitching like he was just eight weeks ago is being disingenuous. Ryan Brasier has almost certainly gotten lucky (some of that luck turned with a weird inning on Friday) and while he throws serious heat it can come in a little flat. That said, his stuff is also very impressive a lot of the time and he’s put up results. His ascension up the bullpen depth chart has been surprising, but not unearned.
The biggest wildcard, and right now the biggest reason to be encouraged by the current group of relievers, is Tyler Thornburg. Now, I have not completely come around on the righty and the sample is still too small for anyone to completely count on him. That said, his stuff is ticking up and since the Red Sox reportedly identified a mechanical issue he has dominated his last few outings. Granted, it’s come against less-than-stellar clubs, but it’s been hard to see him and not think he may be back to being a legitimate back-end arm. Again, I’m not ready to say he’s definitely back to that level, but he’s trending in that direction and if he can get to his old form he’d be on par with any potential trade acquisition to whom the Red Sox have been connected.
That’s the current group of relievers, but as we look ahead to the postseason things become even more encouraging. Obviously, rotations get a bit smaller and some starting pitchers get pushed into a relief role. We saw it happen with David Price last year (for different reasons), and Lance McCullers played a massively important role out of the ‘pen for the Astros throughout their run to a championship. It’s not clear how healthy the Red Sox will be by the time the postseason rolls around, but there’s a decent chance of them having: Chris Sale, Price, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, Nate Eovaldi and Steven Wright. (Maybe Drew Pomeranz should be included here, but I have seen no evidence that he will be a factor come October.) Sale and Porcello are locks for the postseason, and despite his track record I believe Price is too. Even if he’s not, two of Price, Rodriguez, Eovaldi and Wright would be a massive boost to this bullpen. Three of them have stuff that would absolutely play up in shorter stints, and Wright’s potential for change-of-pace could be a total wildcard in a close game.
So, like I said, the Red Sox should still look for another arm to add to this group. There’s essentially always room for one more. That said, it’s far from doom and gloom with this group as it stands. Kimbrel and Barnes are a helluva late-inning duo. Heath Hembree is a legitimate fireman and Tyler Thornburg is trending way up. Add in a duo of, say, Eovaldi and Wright for multi-inning stints in October and there’s no way to think this group has no chance at success.