Well, would you look at that. Against all odds, we have yet another post about the Red Sox bullpen. You are probably more tired of reading about this unit than I am of talking about it, but well, it’s the most interesting part of the roster right now. We all know there are legitimate potential issues with this group. Granted, there are certainly some around the Red Sox who have a tendency to overplay any issue with the organization, and maybe some of the concern with the group is overblown. Plus, this front office has earned the benefit of the doubt with roster building after last year’s unprecedented success. All of that said, it’s hard to make an argument that things are perfectly fine. It’s certainly not impossible for things to go well, but a lot needs to go right if they are to reach that point.
If you are looking for optimism here, the best source might be the simple fact that the Red Sox have a plenty of options through which they can churn as they try to find the best seven-man group in relief. It’s almost certainly not an ideal way to build a bullpen, but we’ve seen enough out-of-nowhere success stories around the league that it’s not without merit to try this approach. Essentially, the Red Sox are hoping that if they throw enough at the wall, something has to stick. With that strategy, though, comes a very important question that I’m fascinated to watch play out. How long do you give the guys on the active roster before you pull the plug and move on to the next option? And, after that, in what order do you try to the other arms?
For as many questions as the Red Sox have, barring injury I think we have a good idea of who is going to be in the Opening Day bullpen. Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier (again, assuming health) are givens. Then, there is the group of Tyler Thornburg, Heath Hembree, Brandon Workman and Brian Johnson, all of whom are without minor-league options. The Red Sox have always favored hoarding depth in any roster crunch situation, which means they have the inside track at an Opening Day spot. At this point, I’d be surprised if they don’t make it. So, assuming that really is the case, how long will they get if they don’t start the season on the right foot? And in what order will they run out chances?
Obviously, these questions are nearly impossible to answer definitively at this point. There isn’t and shouldn’t be any sort of set-in-stone plan on March 13. The extent of any possible struggles from these guys will alter the timeline, as will the performance of the team as a whole. If the team is struggling, they will be more likely to make aggressive chances, whereas if they are rolling they will be more likely to give a longer leash. All of that said, looking at things in as neutral a context as possible, I would say that by the end of April they will have to be seriously evaluating what they have and in the case of poor performance start to seriously considering the next man up.
More interesting to me than that aspect is the order of any possible changes. Again, context will obviously be important here and if one guy is struggling significantly worse than the others he will certainly be first on the chopping block regardless of how things were planned out in March. That said, a more broad way of looking at things is what kind of leash each player will be given.
For me, I think Thornburg would and should get the shortest leash from the out-of-options crew. It’s true that he probably has the highest upside and he definitely has the best season by far of anyone here under his belt. That said, it’s been three years since he’s shown anything, and his spring isn’t showing anything close to encouraging results. It’s always hard to admit to a mistake with a trade like the one that brought Thornburg to Boston, but that shouldn’t hold them back from making a tough call in 2019. After him, I’d go with Workman before Hembree, though that is very close. The latter has held down more important roles more recently than the former, but he also has a lower floor. Brian Johnson is last year mostly because the team’s rotation depth isn’t as crowded as the depth in the bullpen. With Wright suspended — and he wasn’t going to start even before that — Johnson will probably need to be a complete disaster to lose his roster spot.
Obviously, all of this is just preliminary speculation and it’s a topic that will surely be revisited numerous times before any real decisions are made. A lot is going to change before any cuts are made from this group, but the overarching principal is one that should be remembered all year. The Red Sox opted to go with a quantity-over-quality approach with the bullpen for 2019. To make the most of that, they need to be willing to get the depth options like Colten Brewer, Travis Lakins, Bobby Poyner and later Darwinzon Hernández and Durbin Feltman, their chances. That means being aggressive and making tough decisions earlier than they’ve been accustomed to in the past.