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One Big Question: Can the shift to relief keep Travis Lakins healthy?

Lakins was dominant after transitioning to the bullpen last year, and if healthy he should get a chance in the majors in 2019.

Travis Lakins
Kelly O’Connor;

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Travis Lakins.

The Question: Will Travis Lakins’ new role keep him on field enough to make an impact?

It seems like every September there is one prospect with whom the entire Red Sox fandom becomes obsessed with getting a chance in the majors after rosters expand, generally at a position that had been underperforming. At the very least, it’s happened in each of the last two years. A couple of seasons ago it was Bryce Brentz, who was tearing up Triple-A while the Red Sox offense was stumbling towards the playoffs. Last season it was Travis Lakins as the Red Sox bullpen looked like it would be the team’s undoing in October. (Note: It was not.) Of course, neither actually got their chance, toiling away as the minor-league offseason began rather than trying to shore up major-league weaknesses.

Brentz was shipped off in the following offseason, only to return for this 2019 season. Lakins is not getting the same treatment. He was added to the 40-man roster this past winter in order to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. Now, as camp workouts are underway, the righty is looking to get his chance at the highest level in the coming year. All signs are pointing to him getting that chance, with the biggest obstacle being his health.

Kelly O’Connor;

Lakins, for as exciting as he is, has dealt with injuries for most of his short professional career. The former Ohio State standout was drafted in the sixth round back in 2015, giving him two full seasons as a professional heading into last year. He was drafted as a starter and kept in that role for those two seasons, and both of the years ended prematurely with the same injury. In 2016, Lakins made 18 starts (plus one relief appearance) and tossed 91 innings before his season came to an end due to a stress fracture in his elbow. He would come back in 2017, but in early July after only 15 starts and 68 innings, the righty again suffered a stress fracture and saw his season ended early. Two-plus seasons as a professional under his belt and just 34 starts and 161 innings to his name. It wasn’t an encouraging start.

This was, unfortunately, not much of a surprise, however. Even as soon as Lakins was drafted, many were projecting that he wouldn’t make it as a starter. It had nothing to do with his tools, because he had the pitch mix to stick in a rotation. He’s simply too small to be able to handle the kind of workload that comes with the role. Generously listed at 6’1”, 180 pounds, his arm wasn’t liking the starter’s workload.

So, after a delayed start in 2018 as he was still recovering form the elbow injury, Lakins finally made it back to Portland. He technically began his season as a starter, but it was clear the organization was changing its philosophy because he was throwing no more than three innings and 60 pitches in any of his six starts. Then, at the end of May, the change was made and Lakins started throwing short stints. It was a revelation. Not only was he great, which we’ll get to in just a second, but he made it through the entire season without so much as an injury scare. It was the role Lakins was made for, and he took to it immediately.

Like I said, he was phenomenal in his new role. In Portland he made 20 appearances coming out of the bullpen and he allowed just two earned runs over 21 innings (0.86 ERA) with 22 strikeouts and eight walks while holding opponents to an OPS below .450. There were some hiccups early on, including Lakins issuing a walk in five of his first six appearances, but by and large he showed early and often that he could make an impact in this role. When the calendar turned to August, he was rewarded with a promotion to Pawtucket where he made 10 appearances and tossed 16 23 innings, pitching to a 1.65 ERA with 15 strikeouts and five walks.

Kelly O’Connor;

It wasn’t just the numbers that stood out, either, as the scouting reports backed up that this role was the perfect fit for Lakins. Whereas he generally sat in the low-to-mid-90s as a starter, sometimes getting back to 95 mph, he was sitting in that upper-end as a reliever and getting up as high as 98 mph. The command with the fastball still lost its consistency at time, but the pitch was a legitimate weapon. He also showed off a cutter that has emerged as a legitimate out pitch and can mix in a solid curveball to give him an offspeed pitch that’ll keep opponents honest. Add in the fact that his pitches were good enough to succeed against hitters of both handedness — both righties and lefties posted sub-.600 OPS’s in 2018 — and he has the makings of a legitimate setup arm, even if he doesn’t have the closer ceiling.

With all of the success he showed in 2018 and the fact that his name is now on the 40-man roster, there’s really no reason that Lakins won’t make his major-league debut at some point in 2019 and potentially early in the year. There will be a pecking order and those without minor-league options will get preferential treatment out of the gate, but Lakins will get there. The biggest issue will be whether or not he will be able to stay on the field to take advantage of the opportunity. His body never let it work as a starter, but the first test run as a reliever went well. There’s still going to be apprehension with a pitcher who has suffered two elbow fractures in three seasons as a professional, but here’s hoping the shorter stints prevent further ailments because Lakins can serve a key role as long as he’s on the field.