Yes, this is another post about the Red Sox bullpen, because it’s the only thing going on right now. I’m just about as sick of writing these introductions to Boston’s relief unit as you are of reading them, but that’s the way of the world. In case you somehow don’t know — in which case I kind of envy you — the one area of the Red Sox roster that is likely to be added to before the start of the season is their bullpen. After representing their biggest issue in the regular season before coming together (with the help of some rotation members) in the playoffs, they lost Joe Kelly and possibly Craig Kimbrel, leaving a couple of big holes. The Kelly hole might not be as large as it may seem because he was lackluster for much of 2018, but it was certainly a loss. Kimbrel, meanwhile, is a bigger loss than it seems because he was outstanding as always before the postseason, when he was a dumpster fire.
The assumption by many, including myself, was that Boston would be in the market for one of the big-name relievers on the market. Whether that meant bringing Kimbrel back for another run with the team or going after one of the other names at the top of the free agent market, most expected some sort of notable reinforcements to be brought in. The Red Sox, for their part, have never actually said this would happen. In fact, Dave Dombrowski has continually said that he feels comfortable with the internal options and wasn’t planning on a big expenditure in that area. That’s just GM Speak though, right? We’re now in mid-January and there’s still not much smoke here, and it’s looking more and more like the Red Sox could indeed be relying largely on their internal options in the bullpen. There’s certainly ways that could work out, but looking at the names in the bullpen there is a whole lot of risk with the relievers already with the organization.
Obviously, there’s risk with every reliever, including a guy like Kimbrel who has been an all-time great for his entire major-league career. It’s the nature of the position, as they deal entirely in small samples where weird noise can take over. All of this is relative to the risk built in to every bullpen. For the Red Sox, there are a few guys with relatively normal risk. Matt Barnes sort of emerged in the late innings for Boston last year, but he’s been outstanding for a couple years now. There’s little reason to expect a significant step back from the righty in 2019. Somewhat similarly, we know what Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman are at this point. They clearly aren’t on Barnes’ level, but they are decent enough right-handed options that will be best served outside the top three or four options in the bullpen. That’s not necessarily something to be excited about, of course, but they also aren’t likely to be relied upon too heavily.
Everyone else who could play a role in 2019 has a major question mark, though. Ryan Brasier has been named numerous times alongside Barnes as a top-level arm in the late innings, and for good reason. The righty came out of nowhere last summer to dominate and continued that success all the way through October. He’s earned a chance to keep that going next year. However, we’re also talking about a guy who tossed 33 2⁄3 innings in the regular season and 8 2⁄3 more in the postseason. It’s not nothing, but it’s his only major-league experience since 2013. With a full offseason for scouts to get a read on him, there’s always a risk of the league making a big adjustment and those numbers to come crashing down. Don’t get me wrong; I was very impressed by Brasier’s development and his fastball/slider combination was legitimately filthy. We’ve seen enough of these flashes in the pan, though, to know it’s risky to rely heavily on someone with a half-season of success.
Further down the depth chart, there are a couple of former big names that have struggled for a few years now, largely because of injury. Tyler Thornburg and Carson Smith are forever connected as Dave Dombrowski trade targets that have gone awry, though they are in vastly different places now. For Smith, he is on a minor-league deal and isn’t a major factor in the bullpen picture. It seems there are some fans who think he can play a role, but the team hasn’t made any indication they have big plans for him. Still, it’s now been three full seasons before he had major-league success. Similarly, Thornburg hasn’t made an impact since 2016, and at a certain point you have to admit he’s not getting back to that point. Right now, he’s not exactly a huge part of the bullpen, but he’s out of options and he’ll get a chance. There’s a whole lot of downside for someone who has the upperhand on an Opening Day spot.
One of the biggest reasons for excitement about Boston’s internal options in the bullpen comes down to some young talent that could be ready to come up and contribute at the highest levels. In a way, this is an indictment on the current state of the farm, but undeniably a few of the most exciting prospects in the system are relievers who are nearly ready for the majors. The trio of Travis Lakins, Durbin Feltman and Darwinzon Hernandez could all make their debuts in 2019. In fact, I’d bet on all of them making it at some point in the coming year. All three of these guys have the potential to be late-inning arms sooner than later, but I think there is too much of an assumption they can do it right away. We’ve seen relievers come up and dominate right away, but it’s far from a given. When you add in the fact that Lakins hasn’t even had a full season of relief, Feltman hasn’t had a full season in the pros and Hernandez hasn’t even officially converted to the bullpen yet, it would be foolish to rely too heavily on the development of those three.
Finally, you have a handful of guys on the 40-man roster who don’t have a ton of major-league experience. Granted, these are all pitchers who are more depth than impact arms, but Colten Brewer, Bobby Poyner and Josh Taylor are all going to be asked to play some sort of role in 2019, and we have no idea what to expect from any of them.
I still think it’s incredibly unlikely for the Red Sox to not add anything to their current bullpen picture. If everything breaks right for Boston with regards to their relievers in 2019, they can have a good unit with their internal options. Barnes and Brasier just need to repeat last year, Thornburg could get back to his 2016 self and the rookies could come up and harness their talents right away. That’s a lot to ask for, however. The Red Sox should be looking at relatively safe options on the free agent market to counteract that. If we look beyond the top options, that would mean someone like Sergio Romo or even further down with Nick Vincent. Guys who have been solid for multiple years in a row, even if they aren’t the star-level talent. There’s always going to be risk with a major-league bullpen. It’s the nature of the position. Right now, though, Boston has even more than usual.