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Where the Red Sox currently stand in the bullpen

On the mound, dummy.

Boston Red Sox v Philadelphia Phillies - Game One Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

There’s a sort of simultaneously strict but loose process when it comes to a baseball offseason and figuring out what a team needs. Take the Red Sox for example. We can start with the simple premise that they need pitching, which no sane person would argue with. Then we go a bit further and determine they need help in the rotation and in the bullpen. The rotation piece is fairly easy from there. How many starters do you feel comfortable having in a theoretical Opening Day rotation? Subtract that number from five, and that’s how many starters on major-league deals you need. There is more work to be done further from there in terms of talent of those targets as well as supplemental depth, which is the loose part of it, but that’s the short, strict version.

The bullpen can be a bit more complex, though. While, in an ideal world, the rotation would remain the same if everyone stays healthy, that’s not quite how things work in the bullpen. A shuffling of pieces between the majors and Triple-A is part of the game and part of the plan. Additionally, there’s no universal structure. A rotation, generally speaking, is one through five, best to worst. But the bullpen can be layered in a number of different ways, even with different numbers of relievers, though right now most teams are carrying eight relievers at a time. The point is, it’s easy to say the Red Sox need relief help. It’s less easy to say exactly what they should be targeting to address the need.

So I figured it wouldn’t be the worst idea to try and lay out what the Red Sox have right now in order to determine the missing pieces. This is an almost entirely subjective exercise. For one thing, the way I’m determining bullpen roles is not universal. It’s just the way I happen to process bullpen building in my own brain. And there will also be disagreements, both from you, the readers, as well as the organization itself, about how the current relievers on the rosters slide into these tiers or roles or whatever you want to name them. It’s also worth mentioning that, given how volatile reliever performance can be, these levels are fluid.

Before we get into the players, I’ll give just a quick introduction to the different levels of relievers I look at for a good bullpen.

  • Anchor: A top-tier reliever. They’re typically a closer, but don’t necessarily have to be. Teams can have more than one anchor, such as the Brewers with Josh Hader and Devin Williams.
  • Setup: Not quite elite, but very good. You feel good about having them pitch in big spots, though you also feel a bit better if there’s that extra line of defense waiting in the wings.
  • Middle: These are the solid, major-league caliber arms that you need to fill out a unit but you don’t necessarily want them pitching in big spots if you can avoid it.
  • Specialists: Traditionally we think of specialist relievers in the context of handedness, but to me this can mean those guys along with swingmen (a la Brian Johnson circa 2018) or even ground ball specialists who maybe don’t miss bats but you can bring in with runners on and less than two outs for a double play.
  • Quad-A: Basically everyone else. You need them to get through a season, though you’re not exactly thrilled to have to use them in the majors.
Baltimore Orioles Vs. Boston Red Sox At Fenway Park Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

So those are the levels. Now I want to pick the eight players currently on the roster who I would have in my own Opening Day bullpen if nothing were to be added between now and then, and try to place them in these made up, arbitrary groups. After that, we’ll determine what it is they actually need.

Matt Barnes

Barnes has, at times, been an anchor. It doesn’t always feel like it, but when he’s been on in the past he’s an elite strikeout pitcher and has also been hard to square up. That last part hasn’t been as consistent as we’d like, and we’ve also seen that he can break down if leaned on too heavily, as was the case in 2019. That year, he pitched very well for about six weeks while consistently facing the best opponents had to offer, but that wore on him and he hit a wall in June or so. It’s not out of the question that he rise to anchor status for a whole season, but I can’t put him there at this point.

Verdict: Setup, with flashes of anchor

Ryan Brasier

Brasier is arguably the hardest in this group to place, because he’s been sort of all over the place. He was tremendous in 2018, and that includes an underrated performance that October. He was then straight-up bad in 2019. He started out rough in 2020, but ultimately looked good again. We’ve seen him be setup quality for big chunks of two of the last three years, but we’ve also seen him literally be Quad-A, being demoted in 2019. I think he’s on the fringe between low-end setup and high-end middle, but given his age (he’ll be 33 for most of 2021), his rising walk rate (up to 10 percent last summer) without elite strikeout stuff, and the fact that this is about looking forward and not back, I’ll lean conservative.

Verdict: Middle, but close

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Darwinzon Hernandez

On pure talent and upside, there’s an argument for Hernandez to be the best in this entire group. And he can be that guy. If everything works out perfectly, we’re looking at a lefty with a big fastball and a nasty, sweeping slider, and one who can theoretically go multiple innings to boot. That’s an anchor. But we haven’t seen that, and his control is still a total mess. I’m willing to throw away his handful of innings in 2020 (in which he was solid by the numbers but the lack of control was concerning) because of COVID circumstances, but until I actually see him throw strikes consistently I can’t justify putting him in a late-inning role.

Verdict: Middle, but with a good chance of moving up

Josh Taylor

Taylor is sort of the forgotten man in this Red Sox bullpen. Like Hernandez, Taylor’s season was rocked by COVID as he missed most of the summer camp after testing positive and was never quite ready to get going. But if you recall, he was legitimately awesome in 2019 in way that didn’t seem particularly unsustainable. This feels aggressive, and I anticipate I’ll be on a bit of an island here, but if you are one who leans towards tossing 2020 aside, especially for those who actually missed time with COVID, it’s hard not to just look at 2019. And in that case, Taylor is a late-inning arm.

Verdict: Setup, but tentatively

Phillips Valdez

I’ll make up for my being presumably high on Taylor by likely being lower on Valdez than most. He was certainly the biggest win among all the scrap heap pitching pickups of the last 12 months or so, but looking back I don’t really see anything he does particularly well that jumps off the page. That he leans so heavily on his changeup was a big part of his success and it kept hitters off balance, but that can only work so long. I’m worried about it getting exposed in 2021. But at the same time, his performance in 2020 will, and admittedly should, give him some sort of role to start the year.

Verdict: Middle, but lower end and with risk of moving to Quad-A

Colten Brewer

Brewer was dealt a pretty rough hand in 2020, at least considering he was healthy from a COVID perspective. The Red Sox’s complete and utter lack of rotation depth forced him into a role for which he is not suited, and it showed in his performance. As a reliever, though, I still see a curveball that can turn into a real weapon, and a ground ball style that should help to mitigate damage from his control issues. He’s certainly not a late-inning arm, but I get the feeling most write him off as Quad-A and I’m higher on him than that.

Verdict: Middle, with a skillset that can slide into a specialist role if need be

Austin Brice

Brice was a non-tender candidate for me, but was ultimately kept around for the time being. The righty was solid in 2020 but doesn’t really strike me as someone with all that much upside. Even with an increased strikeout rate in 2020, his home run issues just seem to be too much for me. He’s Quad-A for me, which is not ideal given that he’s out of options.

Verdit: Quad-A, but maybe with some luck can stick as a low-end middle

Jeffrey Springs

The last guy in this group could be one of any numbers. Springs is my choice, but Marcus Walden could be another option, or maybe you’re ready to push Eduard Bazardo, or maybe you like minor-league signing Kevin McCarthy. The point is whoever you put here is going to be Quad-A to start the year.

Verdict: Definition of Quad-A

So at the end of the day, I kind of see the Red Sox bullpen similarly to how I see the organization’s farm system right now. That is to say they have a lot of depth in the middle, but are lacking the elite talent at the top. They do have players like Hernandez and Taylor who can move up, but Barnes is the clear top arm and there are questions beyond that. As for what the means in terms of need, it’s clear they need a top-tier arm. If they go into the year with Barnes as their best reliever, they haven’t built the kind of bullpen they need to be even a solid team. But beyond that, I’d argue they need at least one more reliever, and it should be someone similar in talent level to Barnes.