The Red Sox are dealing with depth issues right now on a couple of different spots on the roster, but the bullpen is currently most glaring. Already a group with a little bit of extra spotlight just given the leverage in which they typically play, the microscope has only grown more intense as options have dwindled. As of this writing, it appears at least Matt Barnes, Martín Pérez and Josh Taylor are dealing with COVID issues; Barnes and Pérez have tested positive while Taylor was ruled a close contact during Monday’s game. Throw on top of that some regression back to the mean and/or declining play due to overuse, and the bullpen is quite frankly a mess.
The little bit of good news is there does seem to be help coming in the form of a former key reliever in this bullpen with Ryan Brasier’s impending return. The veteran has dealt with a brutally tough year, starting with the loss of his father and then followed by a calf injury, which was then followed by being hit in the head with a line drive during his rehab, all of which were chronicled recently in the Boston Globe. The list of issues have kept Brasier off the big-league field all season, but he is with the team down in Tampa Bay and could be activated as soon as today and likely not later than Wednesday when rosters expand by two spots.
It gotten pretty easy to forget, not the least of which because of the lack of playing time he’s gotten this year, but Brasier has been a key part of this bullpen for two of the last three years. Nobody will forget 2018, when he unexpectedly not only joined the major-league roster but became a key cog who pitched crucial innings in the October run through the World Series. He took a big step back in 2019, but while no one was really paying attention in 2020 he was solid yet again. Brasier finished last season with a 3.96 ERA and a 3.05 FIP, striking out almost 11 batters per nine innings.
Granted, none of this is to say he is guaranteed to be the thing that turns this bullpen around, or the guy who grabs the keys along with Garrett Whitlock to really solidify the late innings. Brasier has plenty of concerns as well, starting with the fact that he hasn’t really pitched this year. All of his appearances have come on rehab assignments, and he’s struggled there. Over 7 2⁄3 innings between Portland and Worcester he allowed 10 runs with five strikeouts and three walks, though in fairness things got much better towards the end. Still, he also showed some control issues amid his relative success last season, and he just celebrated his 34th birthday. It’d be unfair to count on him as anything beyond another wildcard to throw into the mix hoping things work out.
But he will indeed be thrown directly into the fire after rejoining this team. The Red Sox don’t really have any late-inning answers right now. Whitlock has been mostly great, but it seems like they’re still going to be somewhat cautious with his workload. Garrett Richards has looked good since coming to the bullpen as well, but the sample is still small enough that skepticism is warranted. And then beyond that, Barnes and Taylor are currently unavailable. Adam Ottavino’s command has been all over the place, as has that of Hirokazu Sawamura. Hansel Robles has had his moments, but his control has been terrible and is hardly a beacon of stability. Austin Davis has been better than the results suggest, though his career norms would indicate his control probably won’t stay this good.
The point is that the Red Sox are going to use each and every option whenever they can and hope someone works out. Right now, they aren’t having a whole lot of luck with the group they have, and Alex Cora has a trusting relationship with Brasier. After not pitching nearly all season, and going through tragedy and bad luck, with speed bump after speed bump on his road back, you’d prefer to ease him back into big-league action. But that’s not an option. When Brasier does come back, he’ll be thrown right into the fire, and the Red Sox have to hope he works out because they’re running thin on reliable options.