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How do the Red Sox finish out their bullpen?

It’s a complicated question.

Cleveland Indians v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Originally, the plan for this post was to just do a regular prediction of the Opening Day roster, but if we’re being honest it really doesn’t feel like there’s all that much suspense. On the position player side, the only question that remains is whether or not Franchy Cordero will be ready. If he is, Michael Chavis will be optioned. If he’s not, Chavis will be on the Opening Day bench. I can’t really provide much insight into whether or not he will be ready, so there’s not much to add beyond that. Christian Arroyo is out of options, and will make the roster regardless. The rotation, likewise, is set, with Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Richards, Martín Pérez, and Nick Pivetta making up the fivesome.

The bullpen is really the only interesting part, and there it is basically only one roster spot up for grabs there. Boston has already committed to carrying a three-man bench, which means they’ll have nine relievers in their Opening Day bullpen. I’ve seen speculation that two spots are up for grabs, but that doesn’t really track to me. I’d be surprised if the following eight players weren’t there: Matt Barnes, Adam Ottavino, Darwinzon Hernandez, Hirokazu Sawamura, Josh Taylor, Matt Andriese, Garrett Whitlock, and Austin Brice. Brice seems to be on the bubble for other people, but given he is out of options and none of the other options are slam dunks to be better than him, I’d be pretty surprised if he got the boot.

So, there isn’t really any intrigue for those 25 spots beyond what their role could look like, but that will fluctuate all year. For that 26th and final spot, though, things get really interesting. The Red Sox currently have three pitchers who could be considered for this final spot: Phillips Valdez, Colten Brewer and Kevin McCarthy. I’m pretty comfortable actually narrowing that down even further to cut Brewer out, but he hasn’t yet been optioned so he’s still technically in the running.

The case for Valdez is pretty simple: He was effective in 2020 when so many were not. The righty, who came in as a waiver claim prior to last season, pitched to a 3.26 ERA over 30 13 innings. Given how bad the rest of the staff was, it would seem strange to not reward him with an Opening Day spot in this group.

However, there is plenty of reason to doubt that performance. By FIP, he was over a full run worse, which is worth noting over that small of a sample. Furthermore, he really doesn’t have much of a track record of success, and most of his performance came on the back of a changeup-heavy approach that could be looked upon with some skepticism as being able to work on a longer term basis. Throw in a spring performance that has been consistently shaky, and doubt for his spot is reasonable. Brewer could have taken that, but while he’s been better than Valdez this spring he hasn’t exactly been lights out, and his track record over the last two seasons has been average-at-best, and often worse.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

That brings us to McCarthy, who is the wildcard in this discussion. A former Royals reliever, he signed with the Red Sox on a minor-league deal early in the offseason. As noted by Chris Hatfield of Sox Prospects, he has what’s known as an upward mobility clause. Basically, on Sunday if McCarthy is not on the 40-man roster the Red Sox have to give every other team in baseball an opportunity to say they will put him on their 40-man. If at least one team does make that declaration, the Red Sox either need to let him go to that team or put him on the 40-man themselves. If no team decides to take him, then he stays with the Red Sox, serving as depth at the Alternate Site. It should be noted, too, that McCarthy has no options, so if he’s added to the 40-man he has to be on the Opening Day roster.

If it turns out that no one does want to add him, then this conversation is probably moot. McCarthy has been better than both Valdez and Brewer this spring, but we should certainly note that the righty doesn’t exactly carry a can’t-miss resumé. The 29-year-old is a pitch-to-contact groundball specialist who put up solid results earlier in his career but has been more like league-average by ERA over the last couple of seasons while carrying a strikeout rate under 15 percent. It’s a risky profile in today’s game, to say the least.

On the other hand, we all know how strange this season is shaping up to be, particularly for pitchers. We are in something of an unprecedented situation with pitchers having not gotten their normal workloads due to the pandemic last summer. As a result, teams are understandably more panicked about the potential for even more pitching injuries than they’re used to, which means there is a greater argument for keeping as much depth on hand as possible. That is a reason why I could certainly see at least one team jump at the opportunity for McCarthy by Sunday, and also a reason why the Red Sox could consider to counter that by adding him on their own 40-man.

But, as I said, this is complicated, and the Red Sox have more to consider than just whether or not they want McCarthy on their Opening Day roster over Valdez and Brewer, both of whom, it should be mentioned, do have options remaining. If the Red Sox do decide they want to hoard depth and keep McCarthy in the picture, they have to make room on the 40-man, which is easier said than done for them these days. Boston’s roster isn’t stacked, but it’s not as easy to find expendable players to make room for others as it was even just a couple of months ago.

And also, remember they have to make a spot for Cordero at some point relatively soon as he comes back from the COVID list. So that’s one spot that definitely has to be cleared, but John Schreiber seems like a fairly easy call at that point. He’s an intriguing arm and I’d hope he clears waiver because his funky delivery could make him worth the flier, but he makes the most sense on the current 40-man to cut loose.

Finding a second spot for McCarthy would not be that simple. Some have suggested moving Bryan Mata to the 60-day injured list, but that’s not likely to happen as this would require him to be officially called up and starting his service time clock. (Another hat tip to Chris Hatfield for clarifying that rule for me.) The Red Sox aren’t going to do that with him. From there, the next most likely move would be some sort of trade, a la the Yoan Aybar and C.J. Chatham deals from this winter, with Marcus Wilson.

And ultimately, I think that becomes the thought process. Again, all of this really only needs to come to pass if a team does indeed want to carry McCarthy on their Opening Day roster, which we’ll find out by Sunday. It’s far from a shoo-in given his profile, but the fear of pitcher injuries this year makes it a distinct possibility in my mind. And if it happens, the Red Sox have to determine if their own pitching depth without him — which would be whoever of Valdez and Brewer doesn’t make it, along with Eduard Bazardo, Schreiber if he clears waivers, Marcus Walden, and Ryan Brasier whenever he’s ready to come back — is good enough, or if they’re willing to move on from someone like Wilson to shore up their short-term depth.

Right now, I’m leaning towards they would let him go, but I’ve gone back and forth constantly. If you ask me again in five minutes I might go in the opposite direction. But ultimately it’s the one decision they have to make, and it’s an interesting one even if the ultimate impact is relatively small.