The Red Sox are going to need their bullpen in 2021. Granted, every team needs their bullpen every year because that is the way baseball works, but the bullpen is going to be a particularly important unit for the Red Sox looking ahead to the upcoming season. We’ve already discussed this to some extent when we talked about the need they will likely find themselves with in regards to long relievers and pitchers who can bounce around between different roles, and that same sort of logic extends to the bullpen as a whole as well. Given the issues in the rotation and the problems that are likely to arise following a strange, shortened season, they will need their bullpen to be both good and deep.
Now, the bullpen as it stands now is very unlikely to be the bullpen as it stands on Opening Day 2021, whenever that happens to be. We’ve taken a look at how things currently shake out and determined that they likely need multiple additions to the group, including at least one very good one. Any move(s), or lack thereof, is going to have a massive effect on the effectiveness and value of the unit as a whole. But they’ll need to also get contributions from guys already in the bullpen. For example, let’s assume they add two pitchers who both end up serving big roles in the unit and do well in said roles. The bullpen will likely be pretty good just based on that and baseline expectations for what they already have. But if we’re being honest, they are likely going to need to be great given the rest of the roster, and that’s where Darwinzon Hernandez and Josh Taylor come in.
These two lefties were barely able to make their mark on the 2020 season after both tested positive for COVID back in the summer when players were first reporting to camp to get the season restart going. That delayed both of their returns, and when they were actually able to make it back to the mound it was clear that they weren’t themselves. Whether that was because they were still feeling the effects of COVID, or they rushed back and never got fully ready, or they just got worse is impossible to say with certainty, but it’s clear they were not who we expected. And to be clear, the expectations were not nothing. If we go back to February and March of this this year, both of these southpaws were expected to be among the most important pitchers in the bullpen. Instead, they combined for 15 2⁄3 innings, allowing 10 runs with 20 strikeouts and 13 walks.
As we look forward, these two would appear to be the players on this roster who are most likely to bounce back from their rough 2020s. Guys like J.D. Martinez and maybe even Andrew Benintendi can be bounce-back candidates in their own right for a variety of reasons including the weirdness of 2020, but they didn’t actually have COVID. Both Taylor and Hernandez actually had to fight the virus, then try to get ramped up and contribute for a terrible team. I’ve leaned towards giving the benefit of the doubt to most players who had down 2020s, but even if you’re wary about that in general, you almost have to give to to these two.
Let’s remember why we were so excited about both of these pitchers heading into last season. For Taylor, he came a bit out of nowhere the previous summer and sort of slid under the radar because much of his success came after the 2019 Red Sox had already fallen out of things. But he pitched to a 3.04 ERA with peripherals to match over 47 1⁄3 innings. It’s one season, but there was little in that season that looked unsustainable, both in terms of his statistics as well as the ol’ eye test. Meanwhile, Hernandez wasn’t quite as refined but he has some of the best stuff in the entire organization and we’ve seen him miss bats at the highest level. It’s easier said than done, but all he has to do is get his control to manageable — not even good, just manageable! — levels and he can be a late-inning weapon. The 2020 showings in tiny samples aren’t going to push me off these guys, especially with Taylor entering his age-28 season and Hernandez his age-24 campaign.
And as we’ve tried to hammer home, the Red Sox need a great bullpen if they are going to be a factor in this upcoming season. We all know the state of the rotation and I won’t go through it entirely again, because the arguments here are very similar to the ones laid out in the linked post above about long relievers. But consider what they have now, and then consider the increased injury risk baked in for every pitcher in the league coming off the weird 2020 season, and then consider the extra injury risk that already exists for the pitchers the Red Sox already have, and then consider the crop of free agents out there that are solid but far from great. The point is: There’s really not a particularly likely path to this rotation being anything better than average. The offense can pick up some of the slack if they live up to their potential, but the pitching is going to have to rely on the starting pitching bending but not breaking before handing off to a great bullpen unit.
We know what a great bullpen unit looks like in modern baseball, as we needn’t look beyond the American League East where both the Rays and Yankees have built great bullpens in recent years. They’ve done it differently — New York has gone after big names to build a formidable late-inning unit while the Rays seemingly find a bullpen ace out of nowhere every month — but the result is the same. When you have four, five, six guys you trust in big spots, you can ease up on your rotation and mix and match with different relievers in different situations.
In order to get there, you simply need the arms. The Red Sox could add a couple this winter, and while the opinions on Matt Barnes vary the upside is clearly there given that he is one of the best strikeout pitchers in all of baseball. But at the end of the day, if they want to be a special unit they need at least four or five big-time relievers. And looking at what else they have, the only real options beyond Barnes seem to be Hernandez and Taylor. They are coming off tough 2020s in more ways than one, but if they can put it behind them and get to where we were hoping about a year ago, that could go a long way toward making this bullpen a unit that can overcome the weaknesses in the rotation.