This week’s events — namely, the Red Sox parting ways with Alex Cora — happened after I pushed out the question for today’s roundtable. I’m sure next week we’ll have something in that realm for next week. In the meantime, this week we are dealing with the bullpen. Specifically, the question is: “Do the Red Sox need to add another closer-type reliever before the season?” I made sure to emphasize the word need to differentiate from “should.” Here are the responses.
No, the Red Sox do not need to add another closer-type reliever before the season starts. The Red Sox as constructed are kind of a mystery to me, but that’s largely because we’ve seen what they can be at both extremes, either the 108-win juggernaut that won a World Series, or a team that struggles to get above .500 by a considerable margin like they did this last season. But almost all of those questions are on the starting pitching, rather than the bullpen.
Right now, we have Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, and Heath Hembree as reliable options (although Hembree is hit or miss for some people, and I myself go back and forth on him), and good internal options like Darwinzon Hernandez (who I expect will have a good season), Marcus Walden, and Josh Taylor, who all had strong points that would indicate prolonged success in 2020.
We even added two relievers I’m pretty high on in Austin Brice and Trevor Hildenberger. Between these two, I think we have at least one more serviceable bullpen arm with set up upside if we hit on the lottery ticket chance. Then for depth we still have Josh Osich, Ryan Brasier, Colten Brewer, Travis Lakins, Chris Mazza, and Bobby Poyner, not to mention a cast of Double-A and Triple-A relievers who could boost their value significantly once the season starts.
The Red Sox are probably finished as far as their general construction goes. It really appears the best thing we can do now is roll the dice on our starting pitchers and hope this time that it doesn’t come up snake-eyes.
Right now, I am not convinced that the Red Sox need to add a closer to their bullpen in order to contend in the upcoming season. Brandon Workman was quite literally the most un-hittable reliever in all of baseball last year — and it wasn’t really close. Workman’s league-best .121 batting average against was 34 points lower than Josh Hader (.155) of the Brewers. I repeat, Josh Hader. He may not end up being the designated closer for the entire season, but coming off a successful 2019 campaign, he most certainly deserves a shot at closing out games for this team.
Last season, the 31-year-old finished 30 of the 40 games he appeared in after May 15, so it’s not like this would be a completely new spot for him. We can probably expect to see a little bit of a regression considering 2019 was far and away a career year for Workman, but if he’s anywhere near as effective as he was last season, I think the Red Sox can trust him to serve as the closer for now. Worst comes to worst, things don’t work out early on and the Sox have to make an adjustment.
If the Red Sox want to be a playoff contender in 2020, they must add another closer-type reliever this offseason. While Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, and Josh Taylor all delivered solid innings last year, the rest of the ‘pen was severely lacking. I previously wrote an article about Pedro Strop being a potential cheaper veteran option, but Chaim Bloom and the Sox’ refusal to go over the luxury tax seems to put an end to any possible free agent signings. The real question isn’t whether the Red Sox need to add another closer, but whether they will spend money on necessary free agents in order to contend, or avoid the luxury tax and trot out a mediocre team. As the bullpen currently stands, they do not have enough firepower to be a dominant group, barring significant breakouts from youngsters like Darwinzon Hernandez or Durbin Feltman.
The common adage about the July 31 trade deadline is that is doesn’t matter what you need, what you acquire is more relief pitching. While you never want to run out of your best pitchers in a game, it happens. Even for the “three-closer” 2019 Yankees. With a month to go before Spring Training begins, the Red Sox don’t need another closer. Brandon Workman, Ryan Brasier, and Matt Barnes saved 27 games coming last year and all three are still with the team. Sure, none of these guys is peak Jonathan Papelbon or 2004 Keith Foulke but on any given night any one of them is capable of getting three outs in an inning with little to no damage.
Sure, Brasier felt like a disaster in 2019, after his heroic 2018 season. But when you look at the numbers he dominated right-handed hitters, striking out over five batters for each walk and allowing a .608 OPS. There’s something there that a manager can exploit for the pitcher’s advantage. And Darwinzon Hernandez? He’s a potentially-dominant lefty. Coming up during 2019, he might perfectly suited to taking on those left-handed batters that gave Brasier so much trouble.
Mixing in occasional relief outings from Nathan Eovoldi to help limit his workload every few weeks and who knows what might be possible. Heck, David Price and Chris Sale came out of the bullpen to great effect in the 2018 postseason. While that’s not something you’ll see often or likely, at all, during the summer months, it’s a built-in boost during a time when starting pitchers are taking a smaller share of innings than ever before. Closing out games isn’t a problem for this team. It might not be the greatest bullpen ever, but the top guys can all be closers, if not constantly holding down the capital-C closer job for a season.
I will take the question of whether the Red Sox need to add a closer type before the season literally and say no, because they, of course, don’t need to do anything. From the middle of last season until now, the team’s administration has more or less made it clear that they were cool with turning off the engine and coasting into port rather than continue full speed ahead, because what you’re really concerned about in a boat race is gas costs, of course. So why would I suggest they need to take this step to make the team better when I would settle for so much less? I would settle merely for the truth. Anyhow, all that aside, I strongly suspect this question written by the site manager, was an excuse for said site manager to evangelize Matt Barnes and say that, you know, there’s always a chance he can really be the guy. Or maybe he’s gonna say the opposite and say Barnes alone is not the guy, but with the other power arms hanging around, he could be part of some percentage of ‘the guy.’ All of which is true, and why I’m inclined to say no. All I know is that if he says yes, the Sox are in real trouble. So hope he doesn’t.
If the Red Sox are hoping to make the playoffs in 2020 then they absolutely need to add another back end reliever to this mix and they need to do it soon. As good as Brandon Workman was last year, he walked the tightrope by having a 5.65 walk rate. That rate was 9th highest in all of baseball among qualified relievers. Do that again and you are just asking for trouble.
Matt Barnes, while previously great in other years, also walked too many guys pairing his highest walk rate with his highest strikeout rate of his career. He proved to be far from the reliable shut down reliever the team needed. As good as Josh Taylor was last season he can’t be the third-best reliever on a playoff team. All this is to say yes they need to go get someone. Unfortunately, that guy is no longer on the market so if they want a player like that Chaim Bloom needs to go out and trade for him.
The answer here is an unequivocal yes. Red Sox relievers were 17th in baseball in ERA last season and although you can argue they were a little unlucky based on fielding independent pitching, there’s no denying that they lacked the punch of many of the contending teams. They also got an incredible year out of nowhere from Brandon Workman while everyone else on the roster was inconsistent at best. Workman will turn 32 during this season, so it seems very unlikely that he will repeat what he did a year ago. Even if he does, the Red Sox have a bullpen that is made up of more serviceable arms than actual difference makers. I’m not sure how much better they can make the bullpen with the options on the market and obviously they are dealing with a lot more than finding another reliever right now, but if they’re still hoping to contend in 2020, they need more help in the bullpen.
Gotta say, I’m a little upset at Bryan for stealing my thunder there. I don’t think the Red Sox need another reliever right now, but at some point they’ll need one. I think they can afford to wait until July to make that happen, though. I’ve written about this before so I won’t go too deep into it, but I do believe Brandon Workman’s walk rate should come down enough to offset a good amount of the batted ball regression. I do believe in Matt Barnes, which is not a secret, and I think Josh Taylor can be the third-best guy... for the first half. If the rotation is pitching up to par by that point, I really hope they are going to be willing to add another legitimate bullpen piece for the stretch run.