We all know this winter has largely been spent talking about the Red Sox bullpen. Relievers aren’t most people’s favorite topic, but their importance in the modern game is clearly growing with each passing year. For Boston, there has been plenty of handwringing about the unit, and it’s valid. The relief corps was the most obvious area to be improved heading into the winter, and they’ve done little to address it. The only pitcher added to the 40-man roster was Colten Brewer, who’s intriguing but also has little in the way of track record.
Craig Kimbrel has clearly been the free agent dominating most of the conversation, which makes sense because the team knows him and he was/is easily the best available. The front office is adamant they are not going to spend that much on a reliever, though. Putting aside how you feel about that decision, even if they are going to go that route it would have seemed to make sense to go after one of the cheaper relievers available, a la Sergio Romo. Instead, they did nothing and as a result it has fairly or unfairly been the focus of the team. It seems wild, but what’s done is done. We can only analyze the group as it stands. I am not going to pretend this is some sort of elite bullpen or anything close to that, but there are real positives here in the most important roles, and it may set up to be better than we think.
Matt Barnes is presumably going to play the biggest role in this bullpen as he is clearly the best pitcher in the unit. There are still some negative feelings around the righty for reasons that escape me, as he’s done nothing but put up numbers over the last couple of years. In 2017 he struck out just under 11 batters per nine innings, finishing the year with a 3.88 ERA, 3.30 FIP and a 3.30 DRA. He took a step forward into elite territory last year, with 14 strikeouts per nine innings, a 3.65 ERA, 2.74 FIP and a 2.21 DRA. By Baseball Prospectus’ DRA, he was the ninth-most valuable reliever in baseball last year. Even by FIP he was in the top 26. The righty has gotten better every year, and there’s little reason to think he’ll be ineffective in a bigger role. Some may point to issues in high-leverage spots earlier in his career, but he was good in every situation last year. In the postseason he allowed just one run in 8 2⁄3 innings while giving up a .464 OPS. He can handle the pressure.
I’m not quite as confident in Ryan Brasier, to be fair, but that’s not really because of anything he’s done specifically. Everything we’ve seen from the righty indicates that he is very good out of the bullpen, with the sample size and track record being the biggest issues. Granted, that’s not something that should just be shooed aside. We’ve only seen Brasier for 42 1⁄3 innings between the regular season and the postseason. However, we also saw the stuff of a legitimate weapon in that time. We saw a major-league fastball and a slider that can work as a real out pitch. We saw impeccable command that helped lead to a walk rate under two per nine innings. I wouldn’t mind sacrificing a few more walks for a few more strikeouts — he struck out under eight per nine innings in the regular season — but Brasier looked every bit the part of an important reliever in 2018. I’d admittedly feel more comfortable if he was the third guy in this ‘pen rather than the second, but it could be a lot worse.
The biggest issue here, to me, is that a modern bullpen really needs at least three big-time, trustworthy arms for the late innings. Last season it was Kimbrel and Barnes, and Brasier took over later in the year. Teams like the Yankees and the Astros are loaded with these kinds of arms. The Red Sox need to find one other guy to step up, too. Chances are that guy is going to come in the middle of the summer with a midseason trade, but that can’t be the plan now. If that is the plan, it would be silly that they seemingly didn’t even try to make a move over the winter. More likely is they feel they can get at least one guy currently in the organization to step up.
I think if you polled people involved in decision-making for the Red Sox, most would point to Steven Wright as the most likely to be that third late-inning arm. The team is clearly high on Wright, and always has been, but it’s hard to ignore the warning signs. First and foremost, of course, is the knee injury. It’s been a while since the knuckleballer was totally healthy, and that knee is the reason he’s only going to pitch out of the bullpen in 2019. Then there’s just the inherent uneasiness that comes with a knuckleball being used in high-leverage situations, though that’s probably more of a me problem than an actual problem. To be fair, Wright pitched to a 1.52 ERA in relief last year while allowing a .618 OPS and a 2.99 ERA with a .683 OPS in the role over his career. If healthy, Wright will get the chance to serve in this third-man role, though I’m not completely sold he’ll be healthy enough to be truly reliable for long stretches.
I think if you polled fans of the Red Sox, most would point to one of the younger arms as the most likely to step up and be that third late-inning arm. Here, we’re talking about one of Colten Brewer, Durbin Feltman, Darwinzon Hernandez and Travis Lakins. The talent is there for these guys to step up, though I think it can be easy to overstate the likeliness of them getting to that point, particularly in 2019. I am extremely excited about Brewer and think working with Brian Bannister has real potential to unlock something in him, but I also don’t think that’s something that should be counted on. Feltman has never pitched a full professional season, so the idea of thinking he can come in and be an important piece down the stretch in 2019 seems optimistic, even if it’s not totally unrealistic. Hernandez has huge potential, but the command problems are very real. If people get frustrated with Barnes, they are going to get frustrated with Hernandez unless he makes a major adjustment. Lakins may be the most likely of this group to make some sort of impact in 2019, but I don’t think he quite has the talent to be this kind of late-inning arm. He’s more of a very good middle reliever to me, at least to start.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention the guys who currently project to fill out the middle innings in Tyler Thornburg, Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman. I don’t have a ton of faith in any of them getting up to the point in being a late-inning arm. Those guys will play important roles in 2019, as a marathon season necessitates important innings from anyone on the major-league roster. That is where the biggest issue with this bullpen lies, in my eyes, not in the later innings. Those middle-inning roles are where that group of younger arms can come in and be important. As for that late-inning role seemingly up for grabs, the Red Sox have two guys who have earned some confidence in being high-leverage relievers for a playoff team. It’s finding that third, complementary arm that is eluding them right now. If only there was an elite reliever on the free agent market to fill that hole.