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 Josh Taylor.
The Question: Is Josh Taylor the best left-handed option for the Red Sox in 2019?
It’s no secret that, if the Red Sox have a fatal flaw heading into 2019, it’s the bullpen. There are varying opinions about what they have in the late innings with Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier — I think the concerns there are a bit overblown — but after that most everyone agrees the issues really pop up. There are the long relievers in Brian Johnson and Hector Velázquez, who can be solid but really don’t have much of a ceiling. There is the out-of-options trio in Heath Hembree, Tyler Thornburg and Brandon Workman, all of whom have shown a lot of meh-to-bad performances in recent years.
Then, there is the giant group of pitchers after that who will be jockeying for position on the depth chart and trying to get a chance to prove their merit at the highest level when a spot opens up. And spots will open up. Everyone has their favorites of this group as well as those they don’t believe in, but these guys are seemingly so similar in skill and track record that it’s hard to argue too much with anyone’s preferences. That being said, it does seem weird that Josh Taylor hasn’t been brought up much at all as a potential impact arm in 2019.
The lefty’s career hasn’t really lent itself to much fanfare, at least compared to some of the other guys. He’s not a top prospect like Travis Lakins or Darwinzon Hernández. He wasn’t the lone major-league acquisition this winter like Colten Brewer, and we haven’t seen him in the majors like Bobby Poyner and Marcus Walden. Instead, Taylor was sent to the Red Sox last May as the player to be named later from Arizona to complete the Deven Marrero trade. The southpaw then went to Portland, struck out over a batter per inning and was just generally better than his 3.79 ERA would seem to indicate. His stuff was impressive enough, in fact, for him to be added to the 40-man roster ahead of last winter’s Rule 5 Draft. In other words, Taylor is just one step away from making his major-league debut.
It has been a few years since the Red Sox have really had an overpowering lefty they could trust in important roles in their bullpen. They have had guys like Fernando Abad and Robby Scott, both of whom were fine in specific roles but certainly didn’t threaten to be anything more than they already were. I think it’s somewhat clear it’s not something they’ve prioritized, and that’s fine. They’ve done fine without that. However, it’s also not something they’ve had come up through the minors. That is changing this year, with Taylor, Hernández and to a lesser extent Poyner representing lefties that can carve out significant roles as soon as this year.
Now, looking for a left-handed reliever is not the same thing as looking for a LOOGY. Guys who can or should only face left-handed opponents — Abad and Scott fell into that category — can be fine in specific circumstances and series but over the course of a season carrying those players can represent the waste of a roster spot. For the Red Sox specifically, it doesn’t make a ton of sense given their competition. The Yankees’ only lefties to start the year will be Brett Gardner, Tyler Wade and possible Greg Bird, with Didi Gregorius returning sometime mid-year. The Rays have solid hitters like Ji-Man Choi, Joey Wendle, Austin Meadows and Kevin Kiermaier, but none of them are overly intimidating. The Astros have only Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick as left-handed starters. The point being: Having a good lefty is great, particularly because the Red Sox don’t only face these three teams in 2019. However, they are the most important opponents on the schedule, and most of their starpower hits from the right side.
So, if Taylor wants to be the primary left-handed option for the Red Sox’ bullpen in the coming year, he’s going to need to prove he can pitch well against hitters on either side of the plate. Last year that was largely the case. He was certainly better against lefties, holding them to a .662 OPS, but he still held righties to a solid .738 OPS. Righties had real trouble squaring him up, producing an Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) of just .087. For context, Billy Hamilton finished 2018 with an ISO of .091. However, Taylor struggled to miss bats against rightes (19.8 percent strikeout rate compared to 35.1 percent against lefties) and a bad defense helped lead to a .357 batting average on balls in play.
Those splits aren’t terribly encouraging, but it was never really the results that pushed the Red Sox to add him to the 40-man roster. Instead, it was the stuff from the left side that forced them to make the move. Taylor throws in the mid-to-high-90s and he has a solid cutter and curveball to go with it. He needs to take a step forward with his command and taking one of those secondaries to the next level would certainly help as well. Working with major-league coaches and guys like Brian Bannister could certainly help with that.
Ultimately, there is a reason Taylor isn’t the most exciting guy on the 40-man roster right now. He’s 26 years old and has never pitched in the majors, and while Ryan Brasier showed us last year that’s not a reason to write someone off, more often than not the lack of experience is telling. Taylor doesn’t have the upside or excitement as Darwinzon Hernández nor does he have the polish and (admittedly limited) big league experience of Bobby Poyner. However, he’s closer to the majors than Hernández and has biggest potential stuff than Poyner. There’s a couple adjustments that need to be made to ensure he can pitch against both righties and lefties, but if he makes those changes Taylor could get and run with his chance to make a major-league impact in the coming year.