Insofar as spring training position battles are a thing that actually exist outside of fun fan discussions, the Red Sox don’t really have anything going on on that front. There may be a few surprises on the roster by the time camp closes, but for the most part things are pretty set. The one place where there could be a wrinkle of competition — and yes, obviously they’re not only going to look at spring training results — is in the ninth inning. The Red Sox don’t have a clear closer, and so that is the focus on this week’s staff roundtable. I asked the staff what they would do in the ninth inning this year, and who they would give the closer role to, if anyone in particular.
I think Ottavino is the better option here, but I also think we have seen enough from Cora to know he likes to keep things fluid back there. If the meat of the order is up in the eighth then I think Ottavino comes in and Barnes for the ninth. If the bottom of the order is up in the eighth then I think we’ll see Barnes and Ottavino for the ninth.
I’m not a huge fan of saving your best reliever for the ninth inning, but that’s a debate for another time. The role of closer should be given to either Adam Ottavino or Matt Barnes, and Alex Cora should ride with whoever has the hotter hand. Ottavino and Barnes are the most proven and consistent relievers in the Sox’ bullpen, and their profiles are actually quite similar. Both guys strike out a ton of batters, but often have trouble with walks. I’d lean towards Ottavino to start the year, mostly because of his ability to induce weak contact (something Barnes struggles with), but I’m comfortable with either of the two.
I was really encouraged recently when I saw that Alex Cora had said he likes a structured bullpen. Me too Alex, me too. What that tells me is that Cora is very likely to have someone be the guy. Time and time again on Red Sox teams of the past when the team has lacked a defined ninth inning guy the late innings have become a debacle. I am sure some super smart sports psychologist out there can lend their expertise as to why athletes thrive in their defined lane, but anecdotally, and I’d be willing to bet quantitatively as well, when roles are up in the air, relievers do not pitch up to their potential. Think back to 2019 when Brandon Workman took over the roll down the stretch, he undoubtedly played his best baseball as the closer.
I’d really like to see Cora name Adam Ottavino or Ryan Brasier the closer, my preference would be Brasier. This is not to say I think Brasier is better than Ottavino or Barnes. Quite the opposite actually, rather I want the flexibility of pitching Barnes or Ottavino against the heart of the order in high leverage situations. If that would create an issue of egos clashing on the team then give it to Ottavino, at least he has a pretty good history of keeping it in the yard. All this being said I think they end up giving it to Barnes and it becomes a disaster. Barnes is great at striking guys out but he gives up too many walks and long fly balls that leave the yard. This is an area I will want them to figure out before they are ready to compete for a World Series in the future.
I think the ninth inning will look a lot like last year. With Matt Barnes being the most senior member, I think he will get the first shot but I don’t think he will be able to keep it all year. When Barnes is on, he is a lights out reliever but when he is not, watch out! Obviously, that amount of volatility is not want you want in a closer. I think Ottavino could see a few saves here and there but like Barnes, I think he is more of an eighth inning guy. I would LOVE to see Darwinzon Hernandez in the role but with Josh Taylor as the only other lefty in the pen, it probably will not happen this year.
We’re almost two decades removed from the Red Sox ”closer by committee” experiment and I’m still not convinced that having a closer or having a committee is a binary choice. Of course you want a committee. You want as deep a ‘pen as you can get, especially as starter workloads continue to fall. Looking at strikeouts, walks, the ratio between them, percentages...what’s the difference between Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino, really? It’s not much. I’d be happy with Barnes when I really need a strikeout, but Ottavino is not slouch. Given all the financial nonsense in baseball, let Barnes collect some saves with the C next to his name. But don’t be afraid to use him in the 7th or 8th inning in a tough spot. Cora can’t get this one wrong and he’s lucky to have two really good options. For t-shirts, go with Ottavino. Finally the Red Sox get a 0.
Hope that the offense scores enough runs that it doesn’t really matter? In all seriousness, the Red Sox did get better in the bullpen, but I still think Matt Barnes is the clear favorite for higher leverage situations. Last year was obviously not his best, but he still managed to hold opponents to a wOBA of .226 in 10 ⅔ high leverage innings. He also settled down in the second half of the season, so it’s possible that given a full slate of work, he would be more in line with his past performances. Adam Ottavino, Darwinzon Hernandez and Hirokazu Sawamura should be given some consideration as well, but there are question marks surrounding each of them. Thankfully, spring training exists to help find some of those answers.
I feel like this year, the Red Sox should really go with a closer by committee sort of situation. It doesn’t really matter who gets the final three outs in my opinion, the bigger deal is which pitcher gets tasked with getting the most important outs, usually in a key situation with runners on, or with the heart of the opposing order due up.
In this situation, I want Adam Ottavino getting those hardest outs, until someone else forces the issue. My favorite to upset Ottavino at present is Hirokazu Sawamura if he can adapt to the American game, as nobody has really seen him pitch before, which is a big benefit in our corner. I love Matt Barnes and Darwinzon Hernandez, but I want neither one near these big outs at this time. In his career, Barnes has had an OPS allowed of .756 to the 3-6 batters in the order. Ottavino has allowed a .692 OPS in his career, significantly better. For Hernandez’s part, he just walks too many guys for me to be comfortable with him up against the heart of the order. Until those numbers go down, he’s the bridge to the rough innings. Whoever of the four above names hasn’t been used yet can get the save in the ninth inning. If that’s against the heart of the order, make it Ottavino. Otherwise, go wild.
Matt Barnes. I know a trick question when I hear one.
This has been a talking point for over 20 years but the closer’s role is antiquated. Teams have known this for a long time but most have continued to deploy what’s more or less a traditional closer for various reasons. It’s better not to upset your best reliever than it is to gain a marginal edge in the later innings. I don’t know how Matt Barnes feels about the closer’s role, but a bullpen that might have depth issues depending on how the game flows could use his help in earlier innings. He is a free agent after this year so taking away saves from him won’t affect his arbitration, or maybe Barnes is just not good enough to warrant the rover relief ace to begin with and it goes to someone like Adam Ottavino.
Optimally, the team shouldn’t deploy a traditional closer, but the advantage is so marginal that I won’t lose sleep if they decide to go another route for one reason or another.
I’ve already talked about this a bunch — I think they sort of play the hot hand, but make sure they have a defined closer, and Matt Barnes is the favorite to start the year there — but I’ll go in a different direction. Here’s a hot take, or bold prediction, or whatever you would like to call it. Tanner Houck will end the year as the closer. Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino will be traded at the deadline, Houck’s splitter won’t develop, and they’ll shift him to the bullpen and let him roam in the ninth to end the season and see how he handles the role.