We are just seven games into the 2022 season for the Red Sox, and there has already been some ups and downs with the team sitting a game under .500 to this point on the schedule. Heading into the season, one of the bigger question marks on the roster was with the bullpen. To their credit, they’ve been largely effective when called upon, but many of the questions remain given the small sample size. Chief among those questions is how the closer situation will be handled, which was the topic of this week’s staff roundtable.
Note that these responses were written throughout the week, and most prior to Friday’s loss to the Twins.
Jake Diekman should be the Red Sox closer right now. He picked up his first save of the season in Boston’s first win of the season on Monday, so I think that is pretty emblematic of how the team views him. Even after a rough spring training, Diekman brings some closing experience to the table and a nasty arsenal to boot. It feels weird to say since Matt Barnes is on the roster, but I think I trust Diekman the most in the ninth inning right now.
I don’t buy into the idea that you need a “closer” in the traditional get-three-outs-in-the-ninth-for-a-save sense. Assuming they’re one of your better pitchers, it feels dumb to constrain them to that role because often an earlier inning will provide a higher-leverage situation. The reality is that the Red Sox’s 1-3 record through their first four games has little, if anything, to do with the play of their bullpen. They’ve given up a grand total of three earned runs over four games, so I’d say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Alex Cora seems more inclined to make moves based on matchups (i.e. Diekman to close out their lone win in Yankee Stadium based on his past numbers against New York or Barnes for the sixth inning on Monday). Garrett Whitlock, Hansel Robles, Barnes, Jake Diekman and Matt Strahm are the group I’d choose from for those highest-leverage spots and rotate through them as the numbers and momentum dictate.
“The closer situation” is a tough nut to crack on a staff that uses relievers wisely. Garrett Whitlock is the best option in theory, but if it’s the seventh inning and he’s needed? He’s going then. This is a good thing. This is what we want. The idea is basically to have a ladder and work your way down the ladder as necessary. The ladder probably goes Whitlock, Matt Barnes, Jake Diekman, Hirokazu Sawamura and so on, but that should suffice for closer opportunities. If they stick to that plan, I love it.
I’m a fan of the closer-by-committee and “best pitcher in the important moments” approach to bullpen management. The whole concept of a closer is now largely financial as guys are paid for saves which can be wildly different in terms of difficulty, leverage, or performance. Shawn Chacón recorded 35 saves with an ERA of 7.11 (and a FIP of 6.57) in 2004. That is, of course, the ultimate outlier. However, given that the ‘pen is not an ensemble of top relievers, keep Matt Barnes in the role. He’s still trying to find himself since last summer so a few three run leads - if he’s mostly returning to form - could be a nice place to use him. And if he’s fully back, experiment when needed. This division race is going to be crazy. A relief ace in the seventh to protect a one run lead could be a difference maker after 162 games are in the book.
Right now, I think it will be a bit before the Sox get their closure situation figured out. Diekman has been great in his first few outings which have calmed my nerves at least after his tumultuous spring training, but he has been pretty up-and-down over the past couple of years, so I don’t really know if he’s the answer we’ve all been looking for at the end of the day. I think this season could definitely turn into one where the Sox do not have a specific, established closer. It could be similar long-term outings for guys like Garret Whitlock (as we saw on Tuesday) or even Tanner Houck if he is moved to the bullpen later on.
Another factor is the fact that Matt Barnes has barely seen any major-league action this year, with his only two (one inning) appearances coming against the Tigers on Monday and Wednesday. For me, I think Barnes will be the best option as a closer. Even though he gives me mini heart attacks every time he takes the mound, he showed his ceiling in the first half of last season and if he can get back to that caliber (or something similar) the Red Sox will be set. Obviously, if he continues to struggle as he did in the second half of last year, it’ll be a different story for Boston, but both Diekman and Whitlock are good options to have in their back pocket.
Make a trade ... make two trades? I wouldn’t have entered the season with this bullpen, but what’s done is done. If we’re looking at the current roster, I think Alex Cora has taken the right approach trying to get Matt Barnes into games in low-leverage situations. He looked solid in his first two appearances, both in the sixth inning, before taking a bit of a step back with his control in Friday’s outing. The good news is that his fastball was touching 96, which was an improvement compared to the end of last season, as well as spring training. There will be days where Jake Diekman is locked in, and others where Hansel Robles’ closer experience will come into play. When the 2-5 Diamondbacks fall out of contention by May, the Sox should inquire about Ian Kennedy. But if I had to bet on who leads the team in saves this season, it’s still Matt Barnes.
Put me on the team that says there is no set closer needed, at least not until someone runs away with that job. It’s way too early for that to have happened, so right now I think you play matchups with the two or three guys you trust the most on that day. For me right now, that’s probably Hansel Robles and Jake Diekman, but I suspect that will change before the situation becomes truly settled.