The Red Sox are going to clinch the division, and probably at some point in the next few days. All they have to do is not get swept by the Yankees in the Bronx and they’ll have the division all wrapped up. That doesn’t mean we are without questions about this Red Sox roster. First and foremost among them, of course, is the bullpen. They spent most of this season being a very good unit, even if they never gained trust, but they’ve been undeniably worse over the last month or so. Granted, there are reasons. A lot of bullpens are struggling this time of year. Matt Barnes is out, and he’s a huge part of this unit. Alex Cora is clearly managing a little differently as he tries to audition some arms.
Still, excuses aside, there are reasons to be concerned about this group. Even if I think some of the most extreme worries are overblown, it’d be willfully naive to think they’re totally fine. It’s been the biggest focus on this roster since before the season, and it’s going to continue to be just that until this season is over, whenever that may be. So, with that in mind, let’s take another look at the group and what it could look like in October. Obviously, things will change between now and Game 1 of the ALDS, and this is more of a snapshot in time, but it’s worth keeping an eye on where things stand every once in awhile. So, these are the seven names I think should make the postseason roster, rather than what I think will happen.
Obviously he’s here. Kimbrel is the closer and the most important piece in this Red Sox bullpen. If he is at his best, he is the ultimate weapon that can single-handedly change a series. Alex Cora has indicated he will be used for four- and five-out situations, and that’s what the postseason is all about. We saw Kenley Jansen since-handedly change things last year, and Andrew Miller has done it before too. Kimbrel has every chance to make that kind of impact, and after a rough August he’s looking like himself again. Cora needs to find the right balance between getting him his work and getting him his rest over the next couple of weeks, because if anyone can be the difference between an early exit and a championship, it’s Kimbrel.
Frankly, the Red Sox need Matt Barnes back. He’s been out for a few weeks with a hip injury, but he is throwing off a mound again. There is certainly no reason to rush him, but they would presumably like to get him a could of appearances before October rolls around. The team didn’t acquire a set-up man at the deadline, which was inherently putting faith in Barnes as the number two in this unit. Granted, he’s earned that and even in his struggles before the injury he was giving up hard contact rather than missing the zone. That’s obviously not good, but it’s not the usual late-season struggles we see from Barnes. Hopefully this rest has allowed him to recharge his batteries because if he’s back to the first-half version of himself and him and Kimbrel can combine for three innings of work in close games, that’s an enormous weapon.
This is the big wildcard for the back-end of the bullpen, and he could end up being an even more important piece depending on Barnes’ health. What the Red Sox are hoping for is pretty simple. They’re hoping his fastball can play up even a little more than it already does, and that he can generate more swings and misses if he can simply his repertoire a bit. We’ve seen it happen before, but it’s far from a sure thing. The Astros got this kind of performance from Lance McCullers in last year’s postseason, and that has to be the blueprint Cora is looking at. Or, just simply hoping he can be David Price from last October. That’d do.
I think, if you’re looking for a top-three to carry the bullpen, the three above are that in an ideal world. But, there are obviously questions about both Barnes and Eovaldi for different reasons. If either of them can’t serve in the top-three role, Brasier is the favorite to jump in. He obviously came out of nowhere this season, but at a certain point we have to stop holding that against him. He doesn’t have a track record, except for the track record he has this year. That one has been outstanding. I get caught up in that thinking as well, and even now I feel most comfortable with him fourth on the depth chart, but he’s done everything he can to disprove that sentiment and if he takes a more important role, he’ll have earned it.
No reliever has boosted his stock over the last month or so like Workman. With some other mid-level righties pitching their way off the playoff bullpen, the 2013 World Series champ has worked (no pun intended, I promise) his way onto it. He’s been outstanding of late, and his fastball/curveball combination is looking as strong as ever. Cora is trusting Workman in normal late-inning situations, and he also seems to be turning to him more and more to clean up messes created by other pitchers. Ultimately, I think that will be his role in the postseason, and I think that’s mostly how he’ll be used down the stretch to get used to that.
I don’t believe there’s any doubt Wright is going to make the postseason roster. The competition at the bottom of this group isn’t all that loaded, and the team trusts him. The question I have is about his role. If I was running things, I’d have the knuckleballer as my designated long man, someone to look at if the starter gets shelled early and you need someone to come in and keep you in the game from the third through sixth innings. Wright is perfect for that kind of role, and we’ve seen him get that done before. Lately, he’s been used in late-inning, high-leverage situations. I suspect that’s Cora trying every combination of relievers in the late innings, but I really hope that’s not something that happens in a playoff series.
This is where I’m not sure the Red Sox and I are on the same page, though we haven’t been on the same page on this front in, frankly, years. The Red Sox haven’t seemed to have any sense of urgency in finding a left-handed reliever since Andrew Miller left town years ago, and they’ve been fine just mixing and matching there. That’s fine, and Poyner certainly isn’t a Miller replacement. That said, he’s good, he’s proven himself at multiple points this year, and he pitched well in Triple-A. He’s done everything that’s asked, and he’s one of the few relievers looking solid this month. At the very least, he needs a chance over the next couple weeks to prove he can keep this up. If he does, he should definitely be the last arm to make this bullpen in my mind.
Heath Hembree, Joe Kelly, Brian Johnson, Hector Velazquez
Hembree and Kelly are in competition with Poyner and Workman while also having a chance to jump in for Barnes’ spot if the latter can’t get ready in time. They aren’t pitching well enough to make it over anyone I have above, though. Johnson and Velazquez are harder to leave off, not because of their talent level but because they’ve done everything asked of them in 2018. That said, you don’t need multiple long men, and Wright should have that role locked up.