The Red Sox are playing pretty decent baseball right now, in case you haven’t been paying attention. Entering Wednesday’s action in which they are getting set to play two against the Twins, they have won each of their last seven games. As one might expect when they see a team has won seven games in a row, there are not a lot of portions of the roster not getting the job done. That extends to the bullpen, which has had its hiccups here and there but has by and large executed when called upon.
Coming into the season, the bullpen was one of the bigger question marks on the roster. There was certainly upside, but there were also questions about whether they had enough top-end talent for the ninth inning and whether or not they had the late-inning depth in general to protect late leads. To be fair, it is far too early to make any declaration to that effect at this point, and even during this win streak Tuesday was the first time they even had a save situation. That said, the results have been solid. I am, however, still interested in the pecking order and who joins the established top two as their late-inning force.
We should mention those top two guys at the top, of course, and we all know that starts with Matt Barnes. There was some question in spring training as to who would claim the closer role this season, but Barnes always seemed to have the upper hand if for no other reason there was some familiarity with the organization. Any doubt has gone out the window, as Barnes has dominated in a way that is almost impossible to do justice with the English language. So I’ll just tell you that he has faced 19 batters, retiring 18 of them, walking one and striking out 12. I think that sufficiently explains why Barnes is the team’s top reliever and it will take a bit for someone to overtake him, if it happens at all.
The man who was battling him heading into the season is Adam Ottavino, who has not been quite as dominant. Just as we can’t look at Barnes’s numbers as his true talent due to the sample size, we can’t really look at Ottavino’s line as being representative of expectations moving forward. He has made four appearances this season totaling 3 1⁄3 innings, allowing three runs on five hits, three walks and four strikeouts. That’s not what you want, but it’s too early to not consider him as one of the key late-inning arms.
The interesting question to me is who else joins them. Bullpens are more fluid than we often think about, and what I’m about to say is surely an oversimplification, but I do think good bullpens generally have a trio on which they can rely in the late innings. Really good units have more than that, and teams have had success with fewer, and certainly pitchers shuffle in and out of the role, but I do believe there needs to be a third guy at all times. For the Red Sox, I had penciled Ryan Brasier into that role, but he’s obviously not available and we have no idea when that will change. The good news is there are three other options, albeit with some drawbacks.
The most likely to join them in my view, at least in the short-term, is Hirokazu Sawamura. Nobody really knew what to expect from the righty after coming over from the NPB for his first season in the States, and he’s struggled some with control. Early this season, he has walked four and struck out four across 5 1⁄3 scoreless innings. Control is going to be an issue, and that’s probably not ideal as a partner with guys like Barnes and Ottavino. That said, I’m not really sure I see a whole lot of batters squaring up this stuff that Sawamura is showing off. It’s sort of blown me away, working with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s, a slider that has gotten whiffs on well over 50 percent of swings, and a splitter that has gotten up to 95. The strikeout totals aren’t out of this world, but I think they’ll certainly rise, and there should be weak contact too.
There’s a similar profile coming from the other side in Darwinzon Hernandez who enters this conversation as well. Hernandez is more well-known by Red Sox fans at this point, and he’s the biggest wildcard in this discussion. In terms of pure stuff, he can rival anyone on this roster, and that includes Barnes, who has been one of the best strikeout pitchers in the game over the last few years. Hernandez has the traditional power fastball/slider combination we see so much in the late innings. Unfortunately, he has no idea where it’s going. With his kind of stuff his control can still be kind of bad and still work, but it can’t be atrocious. Right now it’s too often atrocious, which makes him a tough guy to rely on in a lot of close games. I think in an ideal situation, though, Hernandez solidifies himself as the third best reliever in this bullpen. And to his credit, Alex Cora is giving him every opportunity to do so.
Those two were expected to be in this conversation. Garrett Whitlock was not, and certainly not this early in the season. And while it may be premature given the sample size we’re dealing with, anyone who has watched him going back to spring training kind of has to admit it’s worth considering. Whitlock has been lights out, and he’s come in this season equipped with a fastball a couple ticks faster than most expected along with a revamped changeup that has proven to be devastating. It’s probably too early to put a high-leverage role on his plate consistently, and there’s value in keeping him poised for multi-inning stints earlier in games, but in terms of pure talent and where the confidence lies, there’s a very fair argument for Whitlock to be in the conversation with the top arms, and possibly number three.
Like I said earlier, this doesn’t have to be a set-in-stone kind of answer, and Alex Cora will and should roll with the hot hand. Over a long season, they need a lot of arms stepping up at different times and keeping the late innings in a relatively clean state. Looking as things stand right now, Sawamura, Hernandez and Whitlock are all in that conversation, and the roles of those three will be one of the storylines I’m watching most closely over the next month.