Things are pretty much all good for the Red Sox right now, and it’s hard to complain about much of anything without sounding negative for the sake of being negative. As we sit here on this Monday morning, the team is one win away from yet another sweep of the Orioles and they are the proud owners of the best record in baseball. Sitting at 22-13, they have a 3.5-game lead over the surging Yankees in the division. They are getting contributions from up and down the roster and winning all kinds of ballgames.
But — you knew there was a “but” coming here, right? — they have also started to show some flaws bubbling up over the last couple of weeks, particularly leading up to this series in Baltimore. To me, the issue to be most concerned about at least in terms of it not fixing itself is the middle portion of the bullpen. All told, the Red Sox have gotten some good work from their pen. It’s not an elite unit, but as a whole they rank tenth in park-adjusted ERA and fifth in park-adjusted FIP. That’ll get the job done.
On the other hand, it hasn’t exactly been an even distribution of performance. Granted, that’s never really going to be the case in any bullpen, but the Red Sox have leaned on some great performances from guys like Matt Barnes, Darwinzon Hernandez and Garrett Whitlock in order to put up the strong overall numbers. If you look at their middle relievers, though, there are a lot of questions in the middle innings that can lead to some bigger questions for the whole team down the road.
And when we talk about guys in the middle innings, the main focus to me are Austin Brice, Hirokazu Sawamura, Josh Taylor and Phillips Valdez. Matt Andriese could fit in there as well, but he’s been switching between a few different roles to the point where it’s hard to pin him down. But the other four have been inconsistent at best, and virtually nonexistent in one case. Taylor and Brice both have ERA’s over 6.00 on the season (Brice’s is over 8.00), and Sawamura has been struggling more lately with an ERA over 8.00 for the last two weeks. Even if you just want to look at his full season, his peripherals (his FIP is 5.61) suggest the 3.77 ERA is a bit inflated. And then when it comes to Valdez, he’s been solid when he’s been asked to pitch but he just hasn’t been given the call much at all over the last few weeks.
And so this is where I would start to enact change with the Red Sox would be to the complexion of this group as well as how they are used. The first move would be (and really should be) to designate Austin Brice for assignment. It always feels crappy to call for someone’s job, but in this case the writing is just on the wall. Brice doesn’t hold a very high leverage spot in this bullpen, and he isn’t getting it done in the low leverage spots, turning blowouts into close games.
He’s not missing bats, he’s walking a ton of batters, and he’s giving up hard contact. That just can’t play in the majors. Brice was a borderline candidate for the roster coming into the season, with his lack of minor-league options being the biggest reason he made it. It’s understandable to hoard depth and keep your option-less players in the majors to start the season, but at a certain point that can’t be the only consideration. I think we’ve reached that point here.
Taking Brice off the roster would serve to help the roster in a few different ways. For one, they’d get what would hopefully be a better player on the roster in his place, with the most logical option being Eduard Bazardo. He looked good in his one taste of major-league action as the 27th man in a doubleheader, and he should get another shot. Designating Brice would also serve to open up a 40-man roster spot. With Danny Santana presumably getting a shot at the major-league level at some point relatively soon, they’ll need that 40-man spot eventually. It could also be used for someone like Yairo Muñoz or maybe even Jarren Duran. (Though the latter is unlikely this early in the season.)
Either way, Brice’s absence on the roster would also open up some room to shuffle other guys into some other roles. Sawamura, as we mentioned, has been struggling of late. He’s getting hit hard, and I think he would be well served by spending some time in the mop up role that Brice has been filling. Sawamura’s stuff has stood out in a lot of his outings, it’s just about cleaning up the rough parts around the edges. That kind of role is the place to do that. Plus, Sawamura even in this state seems better than Brice, and there is importance to that mop up role. You don’t need dominance, but you need a guy who will keep the game a blowout and not force one of the pitchers higher on the depth chart to enter the game, or even just warm up. Brice has failed at that too many times this year and last.
From there, Valdez and Bazardo could start to fill in some of the more traditional middle relief roles. It seems Cora has been struggling to find a role for Valdez, and this would seem to be the perfect spot for it. If they still can’t find a place for him, perhaps it’s time to move away from the 14-man pitching staff.
Like I said at the top, it’s hard to talk negatively about the Red Sox right now because it sounds like complaining for the sake of complaining. But at the same time, even good teams need to figure out flaws that could have a big effect on the team’s standing by the end of the year. For the Red Sox, I think one of those would be the middle portion of their bullpen. And to solve it, I think it all starts with taking Brice off the roster and then sorting out the pieces from there.