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Examining the Red Sox bullpen beyond the top two

Craig Kimbrel and Matt Barnes are locked in, but what happens behind him?

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I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but the Red Sox are a very good team. In fact, they have the best record in baseball. It’s fun to be a Red Sox fan right now. That being said, this surely isn’t a perfect team. Such a thing probably doesn’t exist, and Boston is no exception. One thing that seems to be all but certain is that Dave Dombrowski and company are going to be looking for relief help at the deadline. Their bullpen has been very good this year, but contenders can always use another reliever. They were connected to Kelvin Herrera a while ago before he was sent to Washington, and more recently it was revealed that they’ve expressed interest in Miami’s bullpen. Something’s going to happen, it’s just not clear when. In the meantime, while we wait for a deal, the Red Sox will have to figure out a pecking order with their current group.

The good news in this regard as that the top two arms have become abundantly clear, even if there are still some disagreeing with the second of that pair. Craig Kimbrel is, very obviously, the top arm in the bullpen. He’s starting to be used a bit more flexibly of late, but is still mostly tethered to the ninth inning. That should change more as the year goes on, and the games become more important. For now, it’s not a huge deal because Matt Barnes has been great. The righty is in the midst of his best season with over 12 strikeouts per nine innings to go with a groundball rate of almost 60 percent. By Baseball Prospectus’ all-encompassing DRA, he has been the 30th best pitcher in baseball among the 303 guys with at least 30 innings. He’s very good and should pitch the most important non-ninth inning situations in close games.

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Beyond those two, however, things get more interesting. That’s not to say it gets bad, nor is it to say it gets good. The way I see things, there are four pitchers that could be considered wildcards at this moment in time and they are jockeying for position of importance in this bullpen. Relief units are always fluid situations, of course, but let’s take a look at the other four potential late-inning options.

Joe Kelly is the obvious name, and he actually spent a good portion of this season so far in front of Barnes on the depth chart. There was a point in time where whispers were starting to grow that Kelly could even replace Kimbrel as the closer next season. However, over the last month he’s gone away from the complete arsenal that made him so effective early in the year, and he’s struggled mightily. Alex Cora hasn’t moved away from him in late-inning situations, and that paid off on Wednesday, but he’s clearly behind Barnes right now. With another bad outing or two in the next week or so, he could very well move further down the depth chart.

Moving in the opposite direction of Kelly is Brandon Workman, who hasn’t been up in the majors for very long this year but has impressed in the chances he has gotten. Flashing the best curveball we’ve seen from him since his role in the 2013 World Series, the righty has his strikeout rate up near 11 per nine innings and he’s allowed just one run in 12 innings of work. Now, his flyball tendencies would suggest that there are some home runs in his future, but he has showed the type of stuff that can succeed even if there is a long ball here and there. Workman needs a few more strong outings under his belt to supplant Kelly, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that it happens within the next couple of weeks.

The most intriguing option of this group is Tyler Thornburg, and I’m not sure that’s arguable. Again, this is not the same as me saying Thornburg is a strong option. That said, he has the longest track record of elite-level performance of anyone in this group, and it happened to come the last time we saw him on a major-league diamond. Of course, that was back in 2016. That season he struck out over 12 batters per nine innings and survived with an extreme flyball profile despite playing in a good hitter’s park in Milwaukee. There’s no way to know what he will be after undergoing TOS surgery, but if he’s anything close to what he was in 2016 he’s easily the third-best reliever in this bullpen, and very likely second. That he can be dominant against lefties only gives him a bigger edge.

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Finally, there is Heath Hembree, who remains significantly underrated by fans. By the way people talk about him, one would think he is one bad outing away from being designated for assignment, but by DRA he’s actually been better than both Barnes and Kelly since the beginning of last season. Remember that list of 303 pitchers I mentioned above? Hembree ranks 64th on that list, right behind Shohei Ohtani with almost identical numbers last season. He does have a home run problem that is more significant than those numbers may let on, but he’s been very effective this season and is death on right-handed hitters. I would bet on him being more of a situational arm then someone who trust as a top-three option, but he belongs in this discussion.

As I said at the open, this is more of a short-term discussion than anything else. The team is almost certain to trade for a reliever before July 31, and they will likely be someone to slot either immediately in front of or behind Barnes. That would give them a strong top three, and the four names mentioned above would be mixed and matched in situational roles. More than anything else the group of Kelly, Workman, Thornburg and Hembree demonstrate the wide range of possibilities of this bullpen. If all four work out to their full potential — highly unlikely for any given group of for relievers, of course — then the Red Sox have an elite bullpen. For now, though, they just need one to get on track and provide a solid last line of defense in close games.