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It’s time to go with a four-man bench

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The extra reliever doesn’t provide the same value at this point that another bat would.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

All things considered, the Red Sox have gotten off to a very good start to the season, and looking at the entire picture there isn’t too much to complain about. They are off to a better start than most of us expected, sitting here on Monday morning with a 17-12 record that puts them in first place in the division. Only three teams (the Royals, Brewers and Giants) around all of baseball have a better record just a few days into the month of May. And beyond just the record, the Red Sox have had significant positives from every different area of the roster. Whether or not the exact pace they’ve been on sticks around, there are more things already to hang our collective hats on this year than all of last season.

Still, there have been snags of late as well, most notably right now the four-game set they just finished up in Texas. This was a chance, coming off a strong two-game set on the road against the Mets, to really separate themselves early in the division and show that they are for real by taking care of business against a rebuilding club. Instead, they lost three of four in an easily winnable series that saw sloppy play and poor situational pitching as well as hitting. The offense in particular has been slumping over the last week or so.

Now it wasn’t totally impossible to see a slump coming from this lineup. Just a couple of weeks ago we talked on this very site about how some of the production from Boston’s bats were the product of some batted ball luck. We predicted some regression coming from the group. That being said, this certainly isn't just the product of the BABIP gods evening things out. There are real issues with the bottom half of this lineup. We knew that group of hitters was going to be boom-or-bust pretty much all year, but the hope was that there would be enough boom at all times to even out the inevitable bust.

There are different ways to counteract some of this slumping down lower in the lineup, but I think at this point in the year the first step I’d take is by adding another bat to the bench. Right now, as has been the case since the season started, the Red Sox are rolling with 14 pitchers and 12 position players. The extra man in the bullpen does prove helpful at times, particularly this season coming off the COVID-shortened 2020 season. That, combined with the questions in the Red Sox rotation coming into the year, made the idea of having an extra reliever defensible. As we’ve seen the first month of this season play out, I’m not sure it is quite as defensible anymore.

MLB: MAY 02 Red Sox at Rangers Photo by Aric Becker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’ll start with the pitching side of the equation, because it sure seems like that was the more important consideration when this decision was made rather than any effect it would have on the offense. Like I said, the logic behind this choice to start the year was sound, but we have more information now. Most notably, the rotation looks better than most of us would have expected. The pitching is keeping them in games, and more important to this discussion they are not getting knocked out early on a routine basis. They’ve remained relatively healthy (knock on wood), and the production has been there. It does get a little tougher with a stretch of 13 straight games coming up, but the production and length has been there from the starters to be able to get through with an eight-man bullpen.

And more important would be the potential effect on the lineup. There has been a lot of hand-wringing against a guy like Franchy Cordero, and it’s impossible to argue against it. He’s been a total black hole. But the solution isn’t necessarily to send him down for help. By just adding another hitter and sending down a pitcher, suddenly Alex Cora has more options to work with in his lineup. He can play the hot hand more with more options, and he can better get the matchups he’s looking for with each individual hitter if there are more options available. At the end of the day it is still up the players getting the job done, but Cora can get them better chances to do so.

On top of all that, he’d also have more late-game help in these cases. With only three men on the bench all season, and one of them typically being the backup catcher who managers often are not wont to insert to a game out of fear of injury to their starting backstop, a manager may be less likely to be aggressive, say, in a big spot in the sixth or seventh inning. By adding that extra option, Cora could feel better about being aggressive hunting those matchups at the plate earlier in games in potential game-changing situations. More options just makes things a lot easier, is the main point.

Of course, it’s easy to talk about this stuff in the abstract but a little more complicated when you start to get into the actual players who would be involved. As far as position players to come up, you’d be looking at a Michael Chavis, a Danny Santana (who is likely to be up relatively soon either way after his minor-league rehab assignment), a Jarren Duran or a Yairo Muñoz. In the short-term, Chavis seems the most likely. Obviously there is no guarantee he provides any punch at the plate, but he looked good in camp. The same goes for Muñoz. Santana, meanwhile, provides more versatility defensively and some theoretical offensive upside given how good he was in 2019, while Duran probably isn’t going to be rushed up unless there is an everyday role waiting for him at some point.

On the other end of the equation, the Red Sox only have a handful of options to clear a spot in the bullpen. The two most likely options would be Phillips Valdez or Josh Taylor. Neither of these two have really been involved much in high-leverage spots, and both have minor-league options remaining. It should be mentioned, though, that Santana’s eventual call up would require an opening to be made on the 40-man roster. They could probably find another way to make room, like perhaps putting Ryan Brasier on the 60-day injured list, but designating Austin Brice could also be on the table as well.

So there are ways to do it without really affecting the core of the bullpen, but even with all of this said I don’t really expect the team to do it. With a long stretch of games and how this has all worked out relatively speaking so far, I don’t think they’re going to change course with their roster strategy right now. I think that’s a mistake, though. The biggest issue for the Red Sox right now is the lack of consistency in their lineup, and the best way to make that work is to have as many options as possible. They don’t have the need right now for nine pitchers in their bullpen, so one of them should be ousted to bring another bat into the mix to try and get things going down below the core of the lineup.