Welcome to the 2021 positional preview series. Over the next seven days, we will be looking at each position group — catcher, corner infield, middle infield, corner outfield, center field, starting pitchers, and relief pitchers — throughout the organization. For each installment we will take a look at the projected starter(s), the options to come off the bench, the depth pieces who will be waiting at the Alternate Site/at Triple-A, the top prospect, the sleeper prospect, and all the rest of the prospects for each position. Today we finish things up with a look at the relief corps.
Matt Barnes, Adam Ottavino, Darwinzon Hernandez, Hirokazu Sawamura, Josh Taylor, Matt Andriese, Garrett Whitlock, Austin Brice, Ryan Brasier
- Perhaps the most intriguing roster question on this Red Sox roster looking ahead to the regular season is who will hold down the ninth inning. Long-time readers know that I am in the Matt Barnes camp. I will certainly grant that they should have gotten somebody better than him this winter, as he is ideally your second best reliever, not your best one, but he is the best of this bunch.
Yes, he has walk issues. (So does the other guy.) Barnes also is one of the best strikeout pitchers in baseball. The step back last season with his strikeouts was a bit concerning, but I’m not putting too much stock into much of anything that happened last year, good or bad. I expect Barnes to get into the mid-30s with his strikeout rate, and if he can keep the walk rate around 10-12 percent, he’ll be more than fine in the ninth inning.
- The man competing with Barnes is Adam Ottavino, and admittedly he is certainly not far behind. In fact, there is a very fair argument he should have the nod over Barnes. The distinction really doesn’t matter a ton as these two will be the most important relievers in the bullpen regardless of order, but Ottavino does bring a similar skillset to that of Barnes in that he can miss a ton of bats while also missing the strike zone a whole hell of a lot as well.
Also like Barnes, the former Yankee is coming off a rough 2020, though for Ottavino a significant chunk of his poor performance can be traced back to a single bad outing. I’m expecting both of these guys to be second- or third-tier relievers this year, depending on how fine you want to get with tiers. They won’t be elite, but they should be good.
- After these two, the pecking order gets a lot dicier. The hope is certainly that Darwinzon Hernandez will step up and join these two to form a trio of strikeout machines with high walk rates. The issue is that in his young career, Hernandez hasn’t gotten his walk rate down to an acceptable level, walking over 18 percent of his opponents to this point in his career. The good news is that career is very short with only 38 2⁄3 big-league innings under his belt to this point.
These walk issues have been here throughout his minor-league career so it’s not something to brush away, but the stuff is good enough that if he can just get his walk rate down to that Barnes range I alluded to above he’ll be a late-inning arm. If you’re looking for optimism, look at the age (he’ll be 24 all year) and that this is basically the first year when it’s been clear from the start he would only work out of the bullpen. Sometimes, it’s that sort of clarity that can unlock consistency.
- Hernandez is on the young end of the spectrum looking to leap into the late-inning fold. Hirokazu Sawamura finds himself on the older side of things. This will be his first time pitching in the majors, but he had a long career before this in the NPB, serving as a closer for a couple of years for the Yomiuri Giants. Over in Japan, his command was a little questionable, but a good fastball to go with a splitter that can be devastating at times was enough to make up for it. So far in the spring the performance hasn’t been great, with the control in particular being a bit all over the place. We’re not reading too much into those issues, but it seems likely he will have to earn a major role before he gets consistent late-inning appearances.
- Josh Taylor is, for my money, the key to this bullpen. I have a reasonable amount of confidence in the names mentioned above, and the names below I don’t see being the kind of impact arms that will affect the late innings (though a couple can make an impact in other ways). Taylor can go in either direction. On the one hand, he doesn’t have much of a prospect pedigree or track record. On the other hand, the one season he spent any significant amount of time in the majors, 2019, he was electric. That was two years ago now, so it’s not unreasonable to be skeptical, but he was really good that season, and in a way that didn’t seem at all unsustainable. I’m cautiously optimistic, but while acknowledging the potential pitfalls.
- Matt Andriese could have been mentioned in yesterday’s starting pitching group among the depth options, and if we’re being honest that is probably his most important role on that team. But for the time being, with five healthy starters (knock on every piece of wood you can find) Andriese will start his season in the bullpen. As I said above, he’s not going to be a late-inning guy locking down saves and holds.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t be important even in the bullpen. He’ll be able to bridge some short starts to the later innings, which is key to saving the bullpen over a long season, and his stuff is good enough that he can be a solid middle reliever while waiting for his opportunities to start. One of my strongest beliefs about baseball is we don’t place enough value on these types of pitchers who bounce seamlessly between the rotation and bullpen, and that’s exactly what Andriese should do all year.
- Also taking up that role should be Garrett Whitlock. The Rule 5 selection has been one of the stars of camp so far, showing off really solid stuff to go with good feel and strong command. He came up as a starter and long-term the hope is still that he’ll be in that role, but for the start of the season they are going to look to just keep him in a relatively low-stress role. It’s easy to point to the spring performances and say he’s ready for a legitimate role, but he’s also coming off a long rehab following Tommy John surgery and he’s never pitched in the majors.
He’ll have the opportunity to earn more important innings and some spot starts as the year goes on, but the Red Sox would be wise to not rush any of that for him and let him ease into the year. That’s one of the advantages of carrying a 14-man pitching staff.
- Austin Brice seems to me to be the platonic ideal of a middle reliever, which is really neither a compliment nor an insult. He’s not terrible, and you can hand the ball to him and be fairly okay with him keeping the game from getting away. You also don’t really want him pitching important innings unless the bullpen is just totally exhausted. That’s particularly true if lefties are coming up. Around here we call this the Heath Hembree Zone.
- Ryan Brasier would be higher on this list, but he’s going to start the season on the injured list and his timetable isn’t really clear. It doesn’t sound like he’s dealing with anything too serious, but rather just getting caught up after a minor injury over the offseason followed by an unrelated delay to the start of his camp. If he were healthy I’d say he was the third best reliever in this group, but it’s hard to say much of anything since we don’t really know where things stand right now.
Phillips Valdez, Kevin McCarthy, Colten Brewer, Eduard Bazardo, John Schreiber, Marcus Walden
- One of these guys will be in the Opening Day group with Brasier not being ready to start the year. Phillips Valdez seems like he should be the favorite after being one of the rare pleasant surprises from last season and already being on the 40-man. For reasons we’ll get into in a second I’m not sure he will be, but even if he’s not he’ll be up sooner than later. Valdez came through almost every time he was called upon last summer, throwing batters off with a changeup-heavy approach that you don’t see much out of relief. I’m skeptical it can work for a second straight year, particularly over a longer season, but he’s earned the right to get another shot.
- The reason Valdez may not make the Opening Day roster is Kevin McCarthy. As we’ve mentioned a couple times over the last week or so, McCarthy does have what’s called an upward mobility clause at the end of camp, meaning if he can get an Opening DAy job on another club the Red Sox have to either let him go or add him to the 40-man and put him on the 40-man roster.
He’s been better than Valdez this spring, and the goal early in the season is always to keep as much depth as possible, which is why guys without options like Brice and Christian Arroyo are locks for the roster. He may not have a super long leash, but at this point I think it makes the most sense to keep McCarthy. The complicating factor here would be finding a 40-man spot.
- Colten Brewer was viewed as a potential breakout in this bullpen just a couple of years ago, sporting an elite spin rate. That hasn’t come to fruition, and last year he was hurt by being forced into a starting role that came about because of the team’s pitiful depth on that part of the roster. Now, he’s going to have to work his way back up above a lot of names to get another chance, but the upside is still there for him to eventually stick as a middle reliever.
- We’ll talk about Bazardo in a minute.
- John Schreiber is one of the guys on the 40-man chopping block. He has a decent chance at making it through waivers even if he is designated, and the Red Sox would hold onto him as minor-league relief depth. He doesn’t have big stuff, instead getting by on a funky sidearm delivery. That worked to great success in the minors, though the jury is still out as to how much it will succeed in the bigs.
- Marcus Walden was my pick last season for the team’s unsung hero. Instead, he was one of the most disappointing players on a roster full of them, getting demoted to the minors and then this winter being taken off the 40-man. He has an uphill battle, but he was legitimately very good in 2019. If he starts hot in Triple-A this summer he could quickly move his way back up the ranks.
Relief prospects are largely not a thing, as we know. There are some relievers who stay in that role for their entire professional careers, but most stick as starters for most of their trip up the minor-league ladder. Bazardo does fit that mold, as he started his career as a starter. He’s been pitching in relief for a couple of years now, though, and is now on the precipice of the majors.
The righty was the star of the Fall Instructs following last season, and has looked like a potential up-and-down reliever at least for a couple of years. Now, though, he looks like he can stick long-term in major-league bullpens. His fastball has ticked up and his breaking ball is a dynamite out pitch. He may have to wait a month or two to get up, but he has a chance to be the kind of pitcher to get called up and then stay up for the rest of the year.
Really, any relief prospect probably fits here because other than Bazardo none of them are really high on any Red Sox lists. I’m going to go off the board a bit and pick Joan Martinez, who long-time readers know I pump up in this space every year. Eventually I’ll have to move off this block, but I’m not there yet.
He has the makings of everything you’re looking for in a major-league reliever in terms of stuff. The righty throws a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and can be really tough to hit when it hits its spots. He pairs that with a slider that has the potential to be a legitimate out pitch. The issue is he has not shown the consistency with commanding his fastball, nor the consistency with breaking his slider right. The pieces are there, but he’s at the point now entering his age-24 season that he needs to put it together. He should get the chance to do that starting the season in Portland.
- Jacob Wallace was the player to be named later in the Kevin Pillar deal. A Methuen native (go MVC) and UConn alum, he’s the best non-Bazardo prospect in this group with a really good fastball/slider combo that is so common late in games these days. He can be a late-inning arm, but still needs a little more refinement. He’ll start the year in High-A, but could be a quick mover.
- Durbin Feltman was supposed to be the big relief prospect for the Red Sox as a third round pick in 2018, but his first full season as a pro was a major disappointment as he couldn’t command anything. The good news is the stuff reportedly looked better at Instructs, and I like him as a post-hype sleeper this year that could very well make an impact in the majors at some point in the summer if things break right.
- Brendan Cellucci is the best left-handed reliever in the organization, and the former 12th rounder is looking to make his full-season debut this year after being drafted in 2019. He has a big fastball, but he needs to sharpen up his secondaries, which consist of a slider and a changeup.