During an offseason that has been tumultuous to say the least for the Boston Red Sox, the organization has clearly prioritized upgrading the bullpen, or at least improving its depth, doing so with a bit more of an eye on proven and effective contributors than signing a bunch of guys and seeing what sticks like last year.
After the team’s relief corps performed rather disastrously in 2022, even after signing pitchers like Jake Diekman and Matt Strahm, Chaim Bloom, the Red Sox’s chief baseball officer, cut the check for three new pitchers, adding Joely Rodríguez, Chris Martin and Kenley Jansen into the mix. While none of the three are the type of superstars that offseason dreams are made of (though Jansen was, once upon a time), they are seemingly solid additions. Of course, you could make the argument that there was upside in signing Diekman and Strahm as well, but Jansen and Martin, at least, are in a different category.
Jansen, Martin and Rodríguez will play key roles for the Red Sox next season, with Jansen likely slotting in as the closer and Martin taking on a setup role, if such archaic titles are still in vogue in the Red Sox clubhouse.
While adding three new hurlers certainly shifted the hierarchy of the bullpen, Bloom did not blow it up entirely and start from scratch. The group will still get contributions from holdovers such as Tanner Houck and John Schreiber. However, while we’ve already looked at how the signings will affect the makeup of the bullpen, one question remains: How good is this newly constructed bullpen?
The most surefire way to answer this question is to wait until next October and see how everything shakes out, but we don’t have that kind of time! We need to know now! So let’s begin our investigation by looking at the results of last season. More specifically, we’ll be examining the fWAR totals for the Red Sox bullpen as it was in 2022 and as it would have been had it looked like it does today. This is a highly imperfect experiment and changes of fWAR of a few decimal points isn’t really all that impactful, but let’s walk through this exercise anyway.
In 2022, Red Sox relievers combined for 1.2 fWAR. If you’re wondering, yes, that is really bad. Not only did that mark rank 27th in Major League Baseball, but 38 qualified pitchers matched or surpassed it by themselves. Now, many of the pitchers who brought that number down are gone, including Hansel Robles (-0.7 fWAR), Diekman (-0.5 fWAR) and Tyler Danish (-0.4 fWAR). Meanwhile, Jansen, Martin and Rodríguez combined for 3.1 fWAR in 2022, with Martin actually the standout at 1.6. By taking out the fWAR total of the pitchers no longer on the team from last year and adding in what Jansen, Martin and Rodríguez produced, we get a Red Sox bullpen worth 6.1 fWAR. That would have been good enough for fifth in MLB in 2022.
Now, as I mentioned, this is a highly flawed experiment seeing as we are dealing with single digit changes in fWAR and not incorporating other metrics, but we can at least infer from this rudimentary addition and subtraction that the Red Sox are in a better spot than they were in 2022, with their ceiling promising even more.
But past results cannot entirely predict future ones. Luckily, there is a robust collection of projections out there for us to utilize in determining how much better the Red Sox’s bullpen should be today than it was a few months ago. Should is the operative word there, but it’s the best we have.
Here’s where the bad news comes in. Steamer projects relatively meager seasons from Jansen, Martin and Rodríguez in 2023.
For Jansen, who is years removed from being one of the top closers in baseball, Steamer projects 63 innings pitched, a 26.7 percent strikeout rate, a 9.2 percent walk rate and a 4.10 ERA. That would be quite the downgrade from last year for the 35-year-old right-hander, who has had a strikeout rate below 30 percent just once in his career and who was relatively solid for Atlanta in 2022.
Steamer is a bit more optimistic about Martin, pegging him to continue avoiding walks like the plague while posting a respectable 3.53 ERA in 60 innings. Martin is not nearly as established as Jansen, but his exceptional 2022 made him an attractive target, especially after Red Sox relievers tied for the fifth highest walk rate in MLB last season. Meanwhile, Martin had the lowest walk rate in baseball among qualified relievers (2.2 percent).
As for Rodríguez, Steamer likes him to improve on his run prevention numbers from last season and post a 3.81 ERA in 62 innings. However, the system also projects a significant decrease in his strikeout rate, which isn’t exactly what you’re looking for from a pitcher who is still projected to walk more than his fair share of batters.
But what about the relivers still on the team from last year? Schreiber, Houck, Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier are all still on the depth chart and will likely get innings, with Houck likely moving between the rotation and the bullpen. (Garrett Whitlock could as well, but the Red Sox plan to keep him in the rotation). Meanwhile, young guys like Kutter Crawford, Josh Winckowski and Zack Kelly might find work like they did last year, while Josh Taylor should be healthy again after missing all of 2022 following a relatively strong 2021 campaign. Unfortunately, Steamer’s projections for many of these contributors are modest as well. In fact, if we return to our rudimentary evaluation system of comparing fWAR totals, Steamer projects that Red Sox relievers will accumulate 2.8 fWAR as a group in 2022. While that is better than the paltry 1.2 mark from last year, it would put them in the middle of the pack rather than near the top of MLB. I suppose that’s something, but is it enough to make a meaningful impact in terms of the standings? Probably not.
Ultimately, adding Jansen, Martin and Rodríguez lifts the expectations for the Red Sox’s bullpen and with a breakout here or an outperformance of projections there, this group could be really good. However, it’s more likely the 2023 Red Sox relief corps will be near the middle of the road. At least that would be miles better than last year.