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Alex Cora’s biggest challenge may be in the ninth inning

They have options with upside, but it’s going to be about figuring out when to use who.

Alex Cora Boston Red Sox Manager Press Conference Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

It seems like a little bit of a stretch of a comparison, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately that the Red Sox bullpen is very similar to the organization’s farm system. I mean that in the sense that both lack true top-end talent — Triston Casas is a fine prospect, but he’s not elite, and the bullpen similarly misses that top-tier arm — but they are a bit underrated in the middle class. In the farm system, I think I’m a bit higher than many nationally on many of the names in the 4-15 range. Along those same lines, I think I’m higher than most both locally and nationally on the middle portion of the Red Sox bullpen, and think they can put together a solid group there. Granted, I’ve been relatively high on this bullpen the last couple of seasons as well, and that hasn’t exactly worked out well for me.

I’m not focusing here on the portion of the ‘pen in which I’m mildly confident, though. I instead want to look at the ninth inning, which is frankly a glaring hole on the roster. They don’t really have a closer.

Now, the obvious first thing to say here is: Do they really need a closer? It’s a fair question. There’s an outside chance at competing with this roster, but more likely than not this is a fourth place team in the division, and so closing games isn’t really a priority. That said, that’s not how you approach a season. It’s fair to argue they didn’t need to spend big on a “true” closer, but they still have an obligation to actually put together a competent roster, and part of that process is planning out a bullpen and figuring out what you’re going to do at the end of games. So not trading for Josh Hader is justifiable. Hand waving the ninth inning in terms of not having a plan is surely not.

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

The next obvious place to go is: Well, it’s 2021. You don’t need a traditional closer. That sounds great in theory! Use your best relievers when the matchup makes the most sense and go from there. It’s not that easy, though, and the Red Sox know that from experience. Remember 2019? Boston went into that season without a locked down closer, instead opting to use Matt Barnes against the best portion of the opponent’s lineup on a daily basis. Barnes was great in that role for a bit. Over his first 23 appearances, he pitched to a 1.99 ERA over 22 13 innings with 41 strikeouts and eight walks.

That role tends to take its toll quickly, though. All save situations are high-stress innings, but coming into high-leverage spots against two-, three-, and four-spot hitters day in and day out takes it to another level. And Barnes hit a wall almost as soon as the calendar turned to June. Alex Cora has expressed regret going with this kind of open-ended approach, and it’s hard to see him doing it again. It’s also hard to blame him. That strategy sounds great in theory, but in reality there are probably only a handful of pitchers who can handle that kind of role in the game right now, and the Red Sox do not employ any of them.

So that means they probably need to figure out a traditional-ish closer. But I throw that “ish” in there because I don’t see this being a totally rigid situation in which you have a guy like, say, Craig Kimbrel and you name him the closer at the start of camp and fully expect him to take the ninth inning all the way through October. For the Red Sox, I think this is going to be a fairly fluid situation all year, starting early in camp.

These days, spring training position battles seem to be more of a media creation than reality, because teams aren’t taking spring training performance all that seriously, at least in terms of in-game stat lines. But sometimes those battles do still exist, and I think this closer situation is one of them. And heading into camp, Barnes and Adam Ottavino are probably going to start on somewhat even footing. Barnes has the familiarity with the manager and the organization as a whole, while Ottavino has a bit more experience in the role over his career and has shown a bit of a higher ceiling. If I had to guess I would say Barnes probably holds a slight upper hand to start, but I don’t think it’s significant and that could legitimately change when they start throwing in front of the coaching staff.

But I also would not expect the closer situation to be decided at the end of March for the entire season. Whoever wins the camp battle will probably get the first run, but I’d expect changes to come as the season goes on. It seems almost definite that they are going to bring in Japanese righty Hirokazu Sawamura, who like Barnes and Ottavino is a guy with big stuff and sometimes shaky command. If he starts hot, he could get a look in the ninth. Ryan Brasier is, I think, underrated, and while I’d be surprised if he worked his way this high I also don’t think it’s impossible. And Darwinzon Hernandez is probably the most notable name to watch. If he can harness his control even a bit, I wouldn’t be shocked at all if he’s considered the best reliever in this bullpen by mid-summer and running with the closer role, a la Brandon Workman in 2019.

And this is where Cora comes back into play. It’s easy to manage the ninth when you have a stud waiting in the wings every day. But when the situation is murky like this, it requires a lot of feel for your staff and playing the hot hand. Playing the hot hand is not exactly a popular strategy with a lot of fans who don’t think it’s even a real thing, but I’m not in that camp. I think it’s real, but I think from the outside we have a tendency to believe we can spot it much more easily than we really can. That said, a good manager who knows his staff can feel that out and navigate it, and that’s going to be one of Cora’s biggest challenges this year.

Boston needs a few other things to go right — health in the rotation, bounce backs in the lineup — before they really need to stress too much about the ninth inning, but they’re also going to be dealing with a slim margin of error all season. If they want to surprise people, they need to win close games. It’s not going to be easy with the mix of arms they have late in the game, but it’s also not going to be impossible. There is talent with all of these relievers in the mix, the challenge is going to be on Cora to try and figure out who is hot at what time, and not being afraid to pull the plug when someone is trending in the wrong direction.