I started talking about this a little bit yesterday in my overall optimistic view of the what the 2020 Red Sox can be, but I am weirdly feeling good about the Red Sox bullpen as it stands right now. I say weirdly for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it feels like I’ve been lower on a lot of things Red Sox-related for this entire winter, so for me to be on the other side feels foreign at this point. The other part of it is just generally where the Red Sox bullpen has stood over the last couple of years.
Or, I suppose I should say, where the perception of the Red Sox bullpen has stood. Last season, the group as a whole wasn’t quite as bad as it was made out to be. Granted, they did blow 28 saves, which was tied for fourth in baseball. Blown saves shouldn’t just be hand-waved away, even a big component of them is simply being on a team good enough to get a lot of save chances. However you want to slice it, though, poor late-inning performances cost this team plenty of games, particularly early in the year. Also consider, on the other hand, that they were in the top half of the league in both park-adjusted ERA and park-adjusted FIP. So, yeah, they were far from elite, but they were also far from a disaster.
All of that said, the narrative around this bullpen has been a disaster for over a calendar year now, for better or for worse. Even while the team rolling through October en route to a championship in 2018, the bullpen was a cause for concern. Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier were really the only guys to be consistently trusted in that run. Then, the organization did nothing over the winter heading into 2019 (aside from adding Colten Brewer, which, you know). Then, they did nothing at the trade deadline. And now to this point this winter they’ve done nothing. Through all of this trepidation, they’ve run with the same maligned (fairly or unfairly) group. And yet, despite all of that, I feel better about this bullpen than I have in a couple of years.
I have said in the past that I think a good bullpen really needs to have three guys they trust in the late innings at all times. That group can, and often does, rotate as the year goes on, but at any given point in the year they should have three legitimate arms they can throw out there in most any situation and feel confident the job will get done. As things stand now, I feel fine — not elated, but fine — with the trio of Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes and Josh Taylor.
Workman is the closer for this team right now, and barring any unforeseen development will be just that on Opening Day. The leap forward he took in 2019 was truly incredible in a lot of ways. That a guy with a fastball that sits around 93 mph, per Baseball Savant, can absolutely dominate with that pitch thanks to hitters sitting on a big, looping curveball is wild. He limited hard contact in a way rarely seen in today’s game, and also in a way that seems wholly unsustainable. He is not going to allow a .209 batting average on ball in play in 2020, nor is he going to give up homers on just 2.6 percent of his fly balls. On the other hand, he’s probably also not going to walk 16 percent of his opponents when his previous career high was six percentage points lower. Considering the fastball/curveball mix that just destroyed opponents last year and the batted ball regression likely being at least partially cancelled out with an improved walk rate, I’m in on Workman.
For Matt Barnes, well, if you’ve been reading me for long enough you know where I’m going here. I think Barnes is the most talented reliever in this bullpen and among the most underrated relievers in the game, at least in terms of electricity. His strikeout rate just keeps going up and up, to the point where he was up to 38.6 percent last year. Yes, he needs to allow fewer walks and yes he needs to get more consistent. But he’s been right on the edge of elite by FIP for the last three years and basically there already by DRA. Eventually, it has to translate and push his results from good to great for an entire season. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.
With Taylor, he was the guy we hoped Darwinzon Hernandez was going to be when he got called up. The southpaw was fantastic since he was first introduced to the majors and never really faltered too badly. He struck out over 30 percent of opponents while keeping his walk rate league-average. He kept the ball on the ground enough to not get killed, showed off a legitimately nasty slider and was consistent against both righties and lefties. You never know how the league will come back against a pitcher in their sophomore year, but there’s no part of his performance I look at and think, “Yeah, that can’t keep up.”
So, the top three is solid, was solid last year and should be at least solid again next year. The group of righties behind them is, admittedly, underwhelming. Marcus Walden is the best of the bunch. I am not a huge Walden guy, mostly due to the lack of upside, but for what he is he’s good. Most appearances he’ll get the job done, but not quite often enough to be a top three arm. As a true middle reliever who can go two innings at times when you need it, he’s fine. Then, you just hope the group of Ryan Brasier, Travis Lakins and Heath Hembree patch together hot streaks in the right sequence in order to be exploited by playing the hot hand. That part requires some good managing, but I believe in Alex Cora being up to the task.
If you’re looking for a little bit of upside, the Red Sox have that, too. I already mentioned Hernandez, who showed us both unbelievable stuff as well as unusable command. I think he’s a bigger wildcard than some care to admit, but it’s impossible to deny the potential with a little cleaning around the edges. Tanner Houck, meanwhile, will likely start the year as a starter, but then so did Hernandez last year. Houck has long been seen as a future reliever, and while I think he has a better chance of starting than Hernandez ever did, his future is still probably in the bullpen. It’s not at all hard to see the Red Sox coming to that realization by June and seeing him in the bigs by late-July. Similarly, Durbin Feltman was perhaps the most disappointing minor leaguer last summer. The upside is still there, though, and he’s got big post-hype sleeper energy. Throw in potential midseason acquisitions, Eduard Bazardo, Austin Maddox and another guy or two who’s not even on the radar right now, and there are reinforcements on the way.
I should be clear that none of this means I think they should continue to ignore the bullpen this winter. There is always room for another arm or two in every bullpen in the league. More help is always welcome. As constructed, though, I like plenty of the arms they have in place and I really don’t have to crane my neck too much to see it being an effective unit. Of course, it’s always possible my Matt Barnes Kool-Aid is simply spreading to the rest of the group.