After yet another meltdown of an outing for Matt Barnes on Tuesday night, his second in as many days, it is now even more clear than before that the Red Sox have a Matt Barnes Problem. While the righty was a big, big part of their success in the first half of the season, the second half has been a much different story, with August in particular being an issue. The righty now has a 16.88 ERA over 5 1⁄3 innings this month, striking out 10, walking five, and allowing a whopping three homers. That’s one fewer long ball than he allowed in the entire first half. It’s a small sample, but the Red Sox cannot afford to wait and hope it turns around. Most everyone is calling for a change, and I’m certainly not going to argue with the idea.
The issue for me is that, while it is a necessary move and one that should help to some degree, it is far from a cure-all for the bullpen. While Barnes’s struggles in the second half — he has an 8.71 ERA since the break — justifiably get most of the attention, the truth is that the bullpen as a whole has just not been as effective. Boston’s relief corps has the eighth-worst ERA in the bigs since the All-Star break, in large part due to a league-worst walk rate. The problems have only gotten worse in August, with the fourth-worst reliever ERA this month.
But the good news in all of this is that there is a clear choice to replace him in Garrett Whitlock. The rookie has been the team’s best non-Barnes reliever all season, and while he’s had his own issues of late with the rest of the group they are far less pronounced than the rest of the unit. Rather than being bad, he’s simply been good rather than otherworldly. So if you’re just looking for the best reliever in the bullpen to put in the ninth inning — a reasonable way of looking at things! — Whitlock is the guy.
But there are a couple of potential issues here, starting with the workload. If Whitlock is indeed going to close, he will have to be available on pretty much a nightly basis. That is not how the Red Sox have approached things with the Rule 5 selection this year, and for good reason. He’s coming back from Tommy John surgery and has never pitched as a reliever before. Not only is he a part of the future with whom you don’t want to risk another injury, but there’s potential concern about what a heavy workload would do to his performance.
Perhaps even more importantly than that, while Whitlock would shore up the closer role, the move would open up a hole for a potential multi-inning fireman. It’s not just the performance that has made the rookie’s season so enticing (though obviously that’s most of it). It’s also the fact that he has been able to come into big situations and pitch for multiple innings, a very important piece in this era of baseball with short starts. There is some hope on this horizon, at least, as Garrett Richards has looked legitimately fantastic in the bullpen. If he can step into this role, you can feel better about Whitlock moving away from it.
But there is still concern with the workload. Unfortunately, there really aren’t any other options beyond Whitlock. Adam Ottavino is ostensibly the next in line in terms of usage, but he’s had his own issues for even longer than Barnes. He’s walking more than he strikes out this month, and in the second half he has a 6.08 ERA. Hansel Robles has looked better of late, and got the job done on Tuesday, but he’s still walking a ton of batters and his track record is not one that suggests he can be counted on to stay strong the rest of the season. Hirokazu Sawamura and Josh Taylor have been steady for most of the season, but they are both walking more than seven batters per nine innings since the break.
That everyone outside of Whitlock seems to be struggling, at least with control, leads to two problems. The first is that the rookie is the only real option with which we can really feel good in the ninth inning. The second is that they are suddenly still looking to Barnes to perform in a setup role. Whitlock is the best reliever in the bullpen today in terms of what I’d expect them to do in games for the next week, but after him Barnes still represents the best upside. All of the other names mentioned above are now the top set-up options if Whitlock is promoted, and Barnes is right there in the mix.
And that is basically the crux of the problem for me. Yes, Barnes should be taken out of the closer role. Yes, he has been the biggest issue with the relievers of late. But he is not the only issue, and the lack of effective depth right now is the problem that needs to be solved. A change in role for Barnes will mostly be made with the idea of shoring up the ninth inning, which is a worthy goal. But for this bullpen to really be a reliable unit as a whole, they’re going to need more than Whitlock to be effective. And looking at the other options, Barnes still stands out as the most likely and most important arm in the unit. Having watched him pitch for the last month, that is a frightening proposition.