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Positional Breakdown: Relief Pitchers

We finish out look at the positions around the depth chart with a look at the relief corps.

MLB: Spring Training-Houston Astros at Boston Red Sox Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next eleven days, we are going to take a look at the Red Sox depth chart to break down each position both in the short-term and the long-term. We’ll look at projected starters, bench pieces, depth options, top prospects, sleeper prospects, other prospects, where the starter fits in the division in terms of projected fWAR using FanGraphs’ Depth Chart system and an overall view. Today we move over to bullpen.

Starters

Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, Josh Taylor, Marcus Walden, Darwinzon Hernandez, Heath Hembree, Austin Brice, Ryan Brasier, Colten Brewer, Brian Johnson

I’ve written before, going as far back as a week after 2020 began, that I feel a little bit better about the Red Sox bullpen construction than most others, or really honestly than I probably should. Part of it is an idealization of each pitcher and the fact that, before games get started, it’s easier to focus on what players can or maybe should be rather than what they’re most likely to be. With baseball on pause right now, that feeling is kind of stuck as my default for the time being.

So, as we go into this bullpen, which I’m using based on my projected 29-man roster, I think the highlight is still in the top five. There is no true top-tier talent, but I have confidence in each of them. Workman won’t be able to maneuver around the control issues he had last year at the same rate, but the fastball/curveball combination is something that I truly believe has staying power. Barnes will have a stretch or two where he makes us pull our hair out, but I still believe he is the closest thing the Red Sox currently have to elite talent here and he’s long been on the cusp of making that leap. Taylor doesn’t have the track record, but nothing he did in his impressive rookie year last year seems particularly unsustainable on its own. Walden isn’t going to wow like the other four in this tier, but he’s consistently solid and can give multiple innings at a time to boot, which could be huge given the rotation issues. Hernandez is the biggest wildcard given both his lack of experience and lack of command, but we’ve seen the stuff and there is a ceiling here higher than anyone else in this bullpen.

Beyond that top five, the Red Sox will need at least a couple of pitchers to step up and join them. First of all, not all of those top five pitchers will work out because that’s not how baseball works and it’s especially not how bullpens work. Also, the issues in the bullpen put more of an onus on this relief corps. Hembree has sort of built a career on bending but not breaking, but I think we’re at the point where he either needs to take that next step with consistency or it’s time to cut bait. Brice is the most exciting of the low-tier new additions made this winter and between the arsenal changes he made last year and his strong showing before spring training was paused, I think he’s most likely to become a later inning arm of this group. We’ve seen Brasier be a reliever capable of pitching important innings for a champion just two years ago. Brewer is more of a guy I see in the Walden type role. Johnson, well, he’s here for innings.

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at Boston Red Sox Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

All in all, there is a ton of variance here even adjusting for the normal amount of variance in bullpen evaluation. The fact is that the best bullpens have that elite talent on which they can mostly lean, but for as tremendous as Workman was last year he doesn’t have the track record to earn that label just yet. On paper, the best path to success from this group is one that involves a whole better than the sum of its parts type approach. It’s not an easy tightrope to walk, but if you squint you can see the path.

Depth

Josh Osich, Jeffrey Springs, Phillips Valdez, Trevor Hildenberger, Tanner Houck, Bobby Poyner, Durbin Feltman, Eduard Bazardo, Yoan Aybar

While I’m more bullish on the projected major-league starters here, I think the depth is where I get into the concern for the Red Sox relief projections. I personally don’t feel I need to squint too hard to see success from most of the guys listed in the first section. I don’t feel as good here. For this section, I think we can break things up into four tiers.

The first is with Osich, Springs and Valdez. These three are both on the 40-man roster and have at least a little major-league experience. Both Springs and Valdez have starting experience as well, but their best fits are likely out of the bullpen. Osich is the best of this group and is propensity to change strategies year to year fascinates me to no end. If someone emerges after not making the Opening Day roster, I would bet on him. Springs and Valdez, to me, have the best-case scenario of being a poor man’s Walden.

The next tier is Hildenberger and Poyner, both of whom have major-league experience but neither of whom is on the 40-man roster. Hildenberger is certainly intriguing as he was once in the back of the Twins bullpen, only a few years ago too, and was seen by many around the league as a guy who could pitch in the late innings for a long time. Unfortunately, injuries derailed his career and he never quite got back to that level. It’s hard to judge too much on spring, but he didn’t really blow me away with his stuff there. Poyner never had too high of a ceiling and in this era of baseball where home runs are just flying out of the park it can be hard to trust contact-oriented pitchers like himself. He has some work to do to build back trust after last year.

After this, I put Tanner Houck in his own tier. In terms of best-case scenarios, I think Houck arguably holds the top spot in this group. The issue is how willing the team would be to let him go in short stints and take him out of a starting role. I think if they got to a position where they had a clear need and the other options mentioned above weren’t working, they’d go there. Of course, the possibility of a shortened season changes all of these calculations.

Finally, we have Feltman, Bazardo and Aybar. All three are pure relievers and all three could have a chance at major-league debuts this year, with Aybar being the least likely. Feltman was a massive disappointment last year and there were real issues to work out. But I threw in the word “arguably” when talking about Houck above because Feltman has a big ceiling too. He’s just further away. Bazardo is a sleeper to contribute this year, and it was a little surprising no one took a chance on him in the Rule 5 Draft. Aybar is the only one here on the 40-man, but he’s also the least likely to get to the majors this year. The ceiling is intriguing, though, and relievers can move surprisingly quickly.

Top Prospect

Durbin Feltman

It’s weird to talk about relievers as top prospects, and there is some argument as to whether Feltman should be mentioned here. It does come with caveats that anyone the team is planning to use as a starter for now is not qualified. That means Houck even though he’s mentioned above, and it also means guys like Bryan Mata and Ryan Zeferjahn who some see as eventually making their ways to the bullpen. Feltman, as I already said, was a huge disappointment last year. The hope was that he wouldn’t even be a prospect anymore at this point. He just couldn’t find his command and Double-A hitters were all over him. That said, there was still intriguing stuff and it can be hard to adjust to life as a pro. We talk about reliever variance year-to-year all the time. There’s no reason it shouldn’t apply in the minors as well, albeit to a lesser extent for the best of the best.

Sleeper

Joan Martinez

It’s weird to talk about top reliever prospects. It might be even weirder to talk about sleeper reliever prospects. It seems like if you either are a prospect or not as relievers and there’s not a ton of variance among rankings. That said, I think Martinez has a better chance to contribute, and relatively soon, than he gets credit for. He was not a very high-profile international signing, but he’s made his way through the system and put up good numbers more often than not. He was great for a stretch last year in Salem before an injury put that to a halt. Martinez has a big fastball and a slider that can develop into a nice out pitch to pair with the heat. He’s ready to get to Double-A, and that potentially puts him a year or so away from the bigs.

Other Prospects

  • Yoan Aybar, mentioned above, is still raw as a former outfielder converting to the mound, but the stuff is undeniable and he’s made big strides considering how new he is to the position.
  • Eduard Bazardo doesn’t have the ceiling of the other prospects mentioned so far but he’s coming off a very impressive season and shouldn’t be too far off from being major-league ready.
  • Zach Schellenger has been on the radar for a while now but struggled a ton last year and is likely in his last chance of being qualified as a real prospect.
  • Logan Browning is a personal favorite of mine as a deceptive lefty who has cruised through the lower levels but will have to prove himself against more advanced hitters before getting real buy-in.
  • Chris Machamer was tried out as a starter but after a mediocre run there I would expect him to go back to the bullpen, where he pitched in college, and try to get that stuff to play up in shorter stints.

AL East Projections

  1. Yankees, 5.9 fWAR
  2. Rays, 5.3 fWAR
  3. Red Sox, 3.9 fWAR
  4. Blue Jays, 2.7 fWAR
  5. Orioles, 2.7 fWAR

Just as with the rotation here, the bullpen battle in the division is Yankees, Rays, then everyone else. The Red Sox do find themselves as a clear middle man, which I think I agree with though I am intrigued by the Blue Jays new additions and think Ken Giles is probably better than anyone in Boston’s ‘pen. Even Baltimore has some intriguing arms, but if there are trades in 2020 I’d expect them to be moved. Between the top two spots, I probably lean Yankees due to track record, but the upside in Tampa Bay as well as Kevin Cash’s management of that group makes it extremely close.

Parting Thoughts

Like I said, I think the Red Sox actually have a decent group here, and they have some solid talent coming up as well. Of course, some of that — Houck, Mata, Zeferjahn, among others — you hope stick as starters, but they could at least populate a nice relief corps in an era when that’s becoming more and more important.