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Replacing the workload of Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly will not be easy

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Obviously quality matters, but the Red Sox will have a hard enough time just replacing the innings.

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Boston Red Sox - Game One Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

I think it’s about time that I just start copying/pasting the same paragraph to the top of pretty much every post that goes up these days, because they all have the same topic. This is only, like, 30 percent joke, too. Do not be surprised to read these words again this week. Obviously, I’m talking about the Red Sox bullpen, which is the only topic of conversation around this team since, oh, the first week of December after they brought back Nathan Eovaldi. In a way, it’s not such a bad thing that the roster is basically set as is and such a relatively minor portion of the roster is the only one that needs tweaking. In another sense, it sucks because it’s boring to talk about the same thing day after day. Woe is me, I know. Please Venmo me money for my pain.

Anywho, as of this writing it’s still not entirely clear where exactly the Red Sox plan on going with their bullpen. This past weekend was Winter Weekend and ownership got to talking about the payroll. Specifically, well, they were talking a bit out of both sides of their mouth. On the one hand, they said the luxury tax threshold — the $246 million mark that would put them in the highest tax bracket and ding them ten spots in the draft for the second consecutive year — is not a concern. On the other hand, they continually say they won’t be spending big money on a reliever and that it’s unrealistic to maintain a payroll like the one in 2018 year after year. Putting aside my thoughts on those comments (*cough* they stink! *cough*), it’s all just confusing. I’m still of the mind that they are not actually out on Craig Kimbrel, but that may be wishful thinking. The latest bit of reporting comes from Masslive’s Chris Cotillo, who says they want to spend around $2-$3 million for a reliever and specifically have talked to Shawn Kelley, among others.

Washington Nationals v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

So, if we take that reporting at face value — and we really have no reason not to — then the Red Sox have lost two of their main relievers from last year’s roster in Kimbrel and Joe Kelly. Replacing them in terms of production is obviously important, but as a tandem I’m not sure it’s the way to look at it. Kelly was obviously dynamic in the postseason, but his regular season production really wasn’t much. By Baseball Prospectus WARP, based on DRA, he was worth just 0.3 wins in 2018. That can be replaced. On the other end of the spectrum, Kimbrel was essentially the opposite. His postseason was brutal, but in the regular season he was worth 1.7 WARP. That won’t be replaced by any one player unless they simply bring him back.

With that in mind, let’s put replacing their production on the back-burner for a minute and just focus on their sheer workload. Nothing is that simple, of course, but simply replacing the innings does matter. There’s no way of predicting exactly how many innings each guy is going to throw, because that would mean having the ability to predict performance and injuries. If you can do that, slide into my DMs and let’s make some money. Gambling’s legal now. Still, we can lay out a crude outline of the bullpen, however, and try to figure out from where those extra innings will come.

To start, we have to consider how many innings the Red Sox got out of their bullpen in 2018 and how many they are losing. As a team, Boston’s relievers tossed 587 13 innings last season, which put them at 13th in baseball. Since they were right around the middle of the pack, it’s probably fair to assume they’ll require about the same amount in 2019. It’s true the rotation looks better on paper to start the year, but they are also coming off a huge workload and thus will likely have their starts ended earlier than normal. That should even out and put them around the same total. Of those 587 13 innings, they lose 128 from Kimbrel and Kelly, who were the two most-used relievers on the roster. They also lose 22 from Drew Pomeranz, 15 from William Cuevas and two from Jalen Beeks. All in all, they have about 155-160 innings they have to find. That’s a lot!

The logical place to start for this rough outline is with whoever this new signing may be. Since we are going off the latest bit of information, we will call this theoretical new signing Kawn Shelley. The expectation from the team, presumably, will be that whatever veteran they bring in would be good for at least 50-60 innings. They wouldn’t sign a veteran to a major-league deal to give them a half-season worth of innings. We’ll give them that here, but it’s important to acknowledge the risk here. Shelley is only going to cost $2-$3 million for one year, and those guys don’t come with a ton of dependability. Still, that eats up about a third of the innings.

The Red Sox have another 50-60 innings that could potentially come from two returning pitchers that didn’t contribute full seasons in 2018. Ryan Brasier is the man atop this post and he is going to have a chance to start the season as the team’s closer in 2019. He came out of nowhere and was a key piece for the Red Sox by the end of the year, but he also only threw 33 innings in the regular season. If he is going to play the role they hope he can, he’ll add about 30 innings to his total. Tyler Thornburg also has a chance for an increased role, though there’s obviously less confidence there. Right now, he’s projected for an Opening Day spot, and the Red Sox still see some of the upside that led them to trading Travis Shaw and Mauricio Dubon for the righty. He threw 24 innings in 2018, and if things go perfectly he could also add another 30 innings to his total. Again, this is assuming things go to plan and there is plenty of reason to think it won’t, but that could give them 120-ish innings between these two and Kawn Shelley.

Boston Red Sox v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

So, if everything goes according to plan, the Red Sox would only have about 30 innings to replace with a large group of players that include the inexperienced — Bobby Poyner, Colten Brewer, Josh Taylor, Travis Lakins, Durbin Feltman and Darwinzon Hernandez — and the reclamation projects — Carson Smith, Zach Putnam, Domingo Tapia. Of course, things probably aren’t going to go according to plan. Things rarely do. That new signing may flame out after just 20 innings. The league might adjust to Brasier. Thornburg might pitch his way out of the league.

The point is, by signing this Kawn Shelley fellow instead of Kimbrel or even a more established and consistent reliever like Sergio Romo (Cotillo’s report mentions that Romo likely will not be signed by Boston), the Red Sox are opening themselves up by needing some big innings from that large group of pitchers, and likely early. And that’s without accounting for injury! Chances are, given the size of the group, someone will step up and fill that role. The challenge is finding them early and not taking until July to get them. Dave Dombrowski has earned the benefit of the doubt, and there’s no reason to get worked up about a hypothetical bullpen when we’re still weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting and months away from Opening Day. That said, the more we hear publicly about their plans in the bullpen, the more it sounds unnecessarily risky.