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Red Sox Position Preview: Relief Pitchers

The Red Sox bullpen, uh, has some questions.

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Pittsburgh Pirates v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome back to our annual positional preview series, in which we take stock of where the Red Sox stand everywhere on the depth chart for each position. At every spot on the diamond, we will look at where Boston stands on the major-league roster while also looking at their top prospects at the position. We will also take compare how the Red Sox look at the position compared to the rest of the division. Today, finish out the roster with a look at the bullpen.

Starters

Matt Barnes, Garrett Whitlock, Jake Diekman, Hansel Robles, Ryan Brasier, Hirokazu Sawamura, Matt Strahm, Josh Taylor

So to start, I should say I’m defining a “starter” for the bullpen as guys who, barring something crazy, will be around for the entire season. That doesn’t mean none of these guys will be cut or demoted, but they will be given a relatively long leash. And looking at this group, it’s really hard to make a broad judgement without having a clear picture of how Garrett Whitlock plays into the equation. The righty was the team’s best reliever by a mile last season, especially in the second half when Matt Barnes’ performance tanked, but this season he is going to be in more of a multi-inning role, with perhaps some piggybacking and also some starts down the line as well.

So if he’s not part of the late-inning situation, the bullpen becomes kind of a mess. Granted, there is certainly a world in which the group works out even with Whitlock serving another role. Both Barnes and Jake Diekman have the kind of stuff that can make them dangerous weapons late in games. I would say Hansel Robles has slightly less upside, but he can still be an effective set up guy when he’s at his best. And even Josh Taylor, who is starting the season on the injured list, can be a good seventh inning lefty. The issue is that all of those guys, and particularly the first three, can also just totally tank in terms of command consistency. We saw it with Barnes last season when he pitched his way off the playoff roster, and Diekman and Robles have similar potential.

Where I think this group is a bit underrated, though, is with their middle relief in the form of guys like Brasier, Sawamura, and Strahm. None of these three are star relievers, and so their value is somewhat capped in that sense, but all three have shown flashes in their career to hold a role on a contending bullpen.

Backups

Kutter Crawford, Phillips Valdez, Austin Davis, Tyler Danish

Here are the guys who are starting the season on the major-league roster but may be shuffling back and forth this year. Davis is the only one on this list who is out of options, and he’s also the only one who can’t really go multiple innings most times out. The southpaw is good when he’s limited to just facing lefties, but that’s harder today with the three-batter role. Crawford, Valdez, and Danish all can provide multiple innings, with Crawford and Danish in particular being able to fill that long relief role. Of this group I’m most excited about Crawford, who could see a tick up in stuff in this role.

Depth

Darwinzon Hernandez, Eduard Bazardo, Ralph Garza Jr., Derek Holland, John Schreiber, Michael Feliz, Zack Kelly, Durbin Feltman, Kaleb Ort

While the Red Sox didn’t do a whole lot on the major-league free agent market in terms of relief help, they enhance their Triple-A depth quite a bit. The names above are the most notable, but there are even more beyond this. Hernandez is probably the first of this group to be called up when there’s an opening. Currently, the team has him starting in hopes that it’ll help him hone his command, though don’t expect him to stick in that role whenever he’s called back up. Guys like Holland and Feliz provide some major-league experience, while others like Feltman and Bazardo provide more upside along with the uncertainty that comes with having little to no experience in the majors.

Top Prospect

Eduard Bazardo

Speaking of Bazardo, he is the best relief prospect in the system, though he could feasibly be surpassed by guys like Chris Murphy if/when they make the transition to the bullpen. But Bazardo is an exciting name who did make his major-league debut last season, but mostly 2021 was a wash for him with injury issues keeping him on the sidelines most of the year. He really popped in Fall Instructs in 2020, showing much bigger velocity than we’d ever seen from him in the past, and pairs that with a nasty breaking ball to give him a stereotypical arsenal for a modern reliever. He shouldn’t have to wait too long to get his first chance in the majors this season, and once he’s up it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise if he doesn’t go back down.

Sleeper Prospect

Ryan Zeferjahn

It’s hard to think of sleepers here because there’s really a few relief prospects most know, and then a steep drop to organizational names. That said, I think Zeferjahn is an interesting one. He was originally drafted as a starter in 2019, but even then it was pretty clear he’d eventually transition to the bullpen. It seems that will be happening this year, and his stuff should play better in this role. He has a big fastball that can get up near triple digits fairly regularly, as well as a sweeping slider and a good changeup. The issue as a starter was that he struggled to command his pitches consistently enough to get deep into games and avoid big mistakes. In shorter stints, he should be able to lean more heavily on whatever he’s feeling the most on that day and hopefully not be quite as affected by any lapses in command.

Other Prospects of Note

  • Durbin Feltman is the biggest name among relief prospects, and he bounced back last season after a troublesome 2019 in which he failed to live up to his 2018 draft hype. While not really a closer profile at this point, he is on the cusp of the majors and should be able to serve well in a middle relief role sooner than later.
  • Frank German was the prospect who came back from the Yankees in the Adam Ottavino trade, and after struggling as a starter for a big chunk of last season he converted to relief and looked much better. Like Zeferjahn above, German’s style didn’t play well in longer outings, but he theoretically should thrive in shorter stints.
  • Jacob Wallace was the player to be named later in the Kevin Pillar trade back in 2020, and like Feltman in 2019 Wallace failed to live up to some moderate hype last summer. The stuff was very much there, though, and if he can have a similar kind of bounce back as Feltman he should be very much in the big league picture at some point in 2023.
  • Christopher Troye was the team’s 12th round draft pick last season. He missed a lot of time in college with injury and thus is more raw than your typical 23-year-old reliever, but if he can harness his stuff he can be an under-the-radar name that moves quickly in the system.

Division Standing

It’s always hard to judge bullpens from other teams because there are always players who pop up out of nowhere that are hard to see coming unless you follow the team closely on a day-to-day basis. The Yankees, though, I think are still on top with Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Loáisiga, and Chad Green as a formidable big three, and some good depth behind that. The Rays always have an elite bullpen, so they have to be in the top two and you could probably argue them for being above the Yankees. I went back and forth between the Blue Jays and Red Sox a lot. I think Jordan Romano is the best (especially if we’re not counting Whitlock) reliever between either team, but the depth goes slightly in the favor of Boston, I think. And then Baltimore, well they have one of the worst on-paper bullpens I can remember after trading Cole Sulser and Tanner Scott.

  1. Yankees
  2. Rays
  3. Red Sox
  4. Blue Jays
  5. Orioles