The Red Sox bullpen in 2022 would be hard to describe as anything other than “an unmitigated disaster,” and one that many of us could see coming from a mile away. Had they added a closer and another power righty, the rest of the roles could’ve fallen into place. Well, better late than never, I guess.
While a lot of work still needs to be done for the Red Sox roster to look complete in 2023, the bullpen could be entirely set at this point. Tendered contracts, some more expected than others, along with some key free agent signings over the past two weeks leaves this area of the roster feeling a lot more complete than the rest of the team. Here’s a look at the group and the roles that I would anticipate the relievers to fall into, at least to open the season.
Closer - Kenley Jansen (‘22 LAD stats: 64 IP, 5-2, 41 SV, 3.38 ERA, 3.21 FIP, 1.05 WHIP, 24.2% K-BB%)
Dan hit on most of the key points in his New Guy piece on Wednesday. The 35-year-old Jansen is no longer the best closer in baseball and he hasn’t been for the past five seasons. He may not be worth two years and 32 million dollars. However, he was a necessary fit for this team at this time. In fact, he was the necessary fit for this team a year ago at this time, but lessons have been learned. In this pitching market, both for starters and relievers, where almost every pitcher that is signed raises some eyebrows, the contract is fair for the clear top closer available. A closer who has pitched in 59 playoff games between the Dodgers and Braves, with a 2.20 ERA.
As his velocity has dropped, Jansen has transitioned to the cutter over the last two seasons and it’s become a dominant pitch. It was the second best cutter in all of baseball in 2022 by Fangraphs Pitch Value, behind Corbin Burnes. A closer named Rivera once survived on a cutter well into his forties. Jansen is not quite on Mo’s level, but with 391 career saves, he has the right idea of how to stay effective in the later years. Next issue to tackle? No pitcher had a slower tempo between pitches in all of baseball in 2022 with runners on base (31.4 seconds). Good thing that there are five months to prepare for the new pitch clock rules.
Setup – Chris Martin (CHC/LAD: 56 IP, 4-1, 2 SV, 3.05 ERA, 2.18 FIP, 1.15 WHIP, 30.7 K-BB%)
Another reliever whose breakout seasons occurred with the Braves and Dodgers. Martin first emerged in the short 2020 season, throwing 18 innings with a 1.00 ERA and 0.61 WHIP in Atlanta. Over the next year-and-a-half, Martin threw a decent 65 innings before a trade to the Dodgers at the ’22 deadline sent him into an absolute heater. 34 strikeouts and one walk, with only four earned runs allowed over 24 2/3 innings in LA was parlayed into a two-year, $17.5M contract in Boston. No pitcher in all of baseball had a better walk rate (2.2%) than Martin in ‘22 (min: 50 IP) and with a 3.3% career walk rate (1.22 BB/9), he seems like a clear choice to pitch the 8th inning.
It’s Complicated – Tanner Houck (60 IP, 5-4, 8 SV, 3.15 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 1.18 WHIP, 13.8 K-BB%)
The spectrum is wide for Tanner Houck’s role in 2023, as it was in 2022. If Houck is in Boston, it could be as a starter which the team told Houck to build up to and prepare for this offseason (Houck made four starts in 2022). It could also be as a swing man; Houck entered nine games between the 4th and 7th innings in 2022. If something ever happened to Jansen, Houck could be the closer, which he did for two months in the second half of ‘22, finishing a total of 14 games and saving 8 of those before a back injury ended his season.
It’s also conceivable that Houck could be pitching for another team. The Red Sox have very few trade assets with major league experience, other than Houck and Alex Verdugo. Dalbec, Duran, and Downs aren’t bringing back a whole lot. Last month, I floated some Red Sox trade ideas with the Arizona Diamondbacks that included Houck in packages for one of their young outfielders, not because I want to see Houck go, but because the pickings are slim. After Xander Bogaerts’ departure and the signing of outfielder Masataka Yoshida, the need for at least one middle-of-the-order bat is even more glaring and the holes in the lineup still include shortstop, catcher, and designated hitter. Houck has five years of control remaining and would be a valuable trade target for teams looking for a talented, young arm with start and end of game experience.
High Leverage RHP – John Schreiber (65 IP, 4-4, 8 SV, 2.22 ERA, 2.50 FIP, 0.98 WHIP, 21.4 K-BB%)
The perfect example of why it’s okay to leave one or two bullpen spots open to churn-and-burn until you find the right fit. Schreiber was called upon to get the high-leverage outs time and again throughout 2022, pitching in 64 games (71 games if you include his Worcester appearances). He entered the game with runners on base 26 times and crossed over multiple innings in 16 appearances. Schreiber struck out 28.8% of the batters he faced and finished the season with a 2.22 ERA. He should continue to be called upon to get out of jams, as he did with high intensity all of last season.
High Leverage LHP – Joely Rodriguez (50 1⁄3 IP, 2-4, 4.47 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 1.35 WHIP, 14.4 K-BB%)
The first of the three bullpen signings, Rodriguez signed a one-year incentive-laden deal with a club option for a second year. Rodriguez could be the lone lefty in the pen to start the season, or one of three, depending on the roles of Josh Taylor and James Paxton. Rodriguez doesn’t quite have the control of the relievers that have been discussed so far, with a 1.48 career WHIP, having walked 4.19 batters per nine in his career. However, he limits hard contact and can get a strikeout when needed, thanks to a 34.7% chase rate (top 6 percentile in league). There’s a bit of pre-2022 Jake Diekman in the profile; here’s to a better outcome than that.
Low Leverage Enigma – Matt Barnes (39 2⁄3 IP, 0-4, 8 SV, 4.31 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 1.44 WHIP, 7.4 K-BB%)
Barnes is unlikely to be worth the $9+ million that he will make in 2023, inked when it was assumed he would still be the closer, but he can still contribute in the earlier innings. His FIP was 3.87 in 2022, and he was 8-for-10 in save opportunities, but also finished with a hideous 7.4 K-BB%, down from 28.8% in 2021. Barnes’ fastball is still effective and his velocity has mostly held, but, as a mostly two-pitch pitcher, he needs to get his curveball back to where it was before mid-2021. The pitch allowed a .266 average in 2022 and the Whiff% dropped to 31.9% from 41.5% in 2021.
Canadian Long Man/6th Starter – James Paxton (DNP) or Nick Pivetta (179 2⁄3 IP, 10-12, 33 Starts, 4.56 ERA, 4.42 FIP, 1.38 WHIP, 13.2 K-BB%)
This is with the assumption that (at least) a number two starter is brought in this offseason, and the Red Sox enter the season with: Sale, Whitlock, Bello, and TBA as four of the five starters. Your guess is as good as mine as to whether James Paxton will be healthy and if he’ll be a rotation or bullpen piece to start 2023. I think Paxton would be best served as a multi-inning reliever in the bullpen, but with all of that risk in the staff listed above, it’s possible that both Pivetta and Paxton are in the rotation.
Lowest Leverage – Ryan Brasier (62 1⁄3 IP, 0-3, 1 SV, 5.78 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 1.30 WHIP, 19.4 K-BB
The Red Sox tendered the 35-year-old Brasier a one-year contract, estimated to be worth $2.3 million. Brasier allowed a 5.78 ERA in 2022, while allowing some of the hardest contact in all of baseball. After the Jansen, Martin, and Rodriguez acquisitions in the past two weeks, it’s unfortunate there isn’t a Blackjack-style “Surrender” option to retroactively non-tender Brasier and get half of the money back, along with a roster spot. I would greatly prefer to give that spot to anyone in the next section.
Contributors with Options Remaining – Josh Taylor (Options: 2), Zack Kelly (Options: 3), Kutter Crawford (Options: 2),
Thad Ward (Options: 3)
The left-handed Taylor missed the entire season with a back injury, after making 61 appearances with a 3.40 ERA in 2021. Kelly threw 13 2⁄3 late season innings in 2022 and looked like he belonged. His 82 mph change-up separates beautifully from the 95 mph fastball, and mixed in a slider 14% of the time. Crawford had some very impressive outings and some equally ugly ones, mostly in the rotation. His final ERA was 5.47, thanks to three straight blow-ups to end the season. Ward returned from Tommy John in 2022 and had a 2.43 ERA with a 29.5 K% at double-A and may have thrown some innings in ‘23, if not for being inexplicably left unprotected from the 40-man roster and selected 1.1 in the Rule 5 draft last Wednesday.