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2023 Offseason Evaluation: Relief Pitching

How will the overhauled bullpen perform in 2023?

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Players On The Roster In 2023

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Heading into 2022 I was deeply skeptical that this unit was good enough to allow the Red Sox to be competitive. The numbers bore out that skepticism all year long leading to a complete overhaul of the bullpen this offseason. Good thing too, because it was without a doubt the team’s most glaring weakness.

The bullpen ranked near the bottom of the league in almost every measure of success. They were 27th in fWAR, 25th in walk rate, 20th in HR/FB rate, 18th in GB rate, and just 15th in strikeout rate. Due to a closer-by -committee approach, no pitcher had more than eight saves over the course of the season and the team only compiled 39 saves–the 18th highest total in baseball. They blew 27 saves, the sixth most in baseball, while allowing the highest average exit velocity and the fourth highest hard hit rate among all major league bullpens. They allowed the fifth most barrels and it showed, teams were teeing off on these guys. This unit probably cost this team at least ten wins, maybe even more.

Chaim Bloom acted on this information by doing a near top-to-bottom rebuild of the bullpen. Among players who were part of this unit last year only three pitchers are returning who appeared in over 30 games: Ryan Brasier (68 G), Jon Schrieber (64 G), and Tanner Houck (32 G). It isn’t even clear yet that Houck will be a reliever, but it seems very likely considering the crowded rotation. Many fans, including myself, are surprised that Brasier is still with the team, but he has proven himself as more able to survive a disaster than a cockroach.

The common deficiency of last year’s bullpen was allowing too many walks, giving up too much hard contact, not inducing enough ground balls, and not striking enough batters out. To address this Bloom signed an established closer in Kenly Jansen, an established setup man in Chris Martin, as well as trading for lefty Richard Bleier. All three of these players don’t walk many batters, although Jansen has been more prone to walks over his last three seasons. Martin and Bleier also induce a high rate of ground balls and weak contact. Martin has many similarities with Schrieber and having two players with those characteristics should allow Cora to space out their usage.

Joely Rodriguez and the aforementioned Brasier have both strengths and weaknesses. Rodriguez induces ground balls and gets strikeouts, but he is the one member of this unit that still issues too many free passes. Brasier had high strikeout rates and low walk rates, but he got hammered by hard contact. These two are the biggest risks heading into 2023. With the way the rotation looks like it will shake out Tanner Houck and Nick Pivetta may begin the year in the bullpen. These two guys can go multiple innings and get strikeouts. Overall, this unit looks much better and should protect more leads than the 2022 bullpen.

Players In The Upper Minors With A Chance To Contribute In 2023

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Should any member of this bullpen either get injured or fail to produce effectively the Red Sox have ample options in the minor leagues. Zack Kelly, Wyatt Mills, and Kaleb Ort are all right handed relief options that have various interesting traits. Kelly is the most intriguing of these options since he has a mid-90’s fastball that has been effective at the big league level as well as a changeup and cutter. His changeup misses bats and if can be more consistent with it he could factor into a 7th inning role. Mills, who was acquired for Jacob Wallace, is a fastball/slider guy who made his major league debut last year. His results were not very exciting, however, he gets good extension and throws from a sidearm slot. Finally, there’s Ort who performed disastrously last season over 28.1 innings while giving up a 47.8 hard hit rate. Apparently the Red Sox see something they like since he, like Brasier, keeps surviving while others are cut.

Other options for relief include guys who are currently working as starting pitchers, this includes: Kutter Crawford, Bryan Mata, Chris Murphy, Josh Winckowski, and Jake Faria. Of these players Murphy is the only lefty, I believe this gives him a leg up when it comes to projecting a debut in 2023. Mata is the hardest thrower here with the highest ceiling and if he can iron out command issues he could be an impactful late inning arm. Crawford and Winckowski are probably best served as starting pitching depth and would represent the likeliest choices should injuries arise.

Options In Free Agency

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The market is very picked over at this time and I’m not sure any of the right handed options there represent an upgrade over what the Red Sox have in house. The market for left handers is much more interesting, it features Zack Britton, Will Smith, and Brad Hand. Each of these players has concerns whether it be age or injury, but each also has closing experience. I wish the team had gone with Britton rather than Rodriguez.

My Suggestion

If it were up to me I’d start the year with Kelly in the bullpen rather than Brasier. At this point I think he is clearly the better pitcher and I don’t quite understand the fascination with Brasier. Other than that, I think that Bloom has done a really good job of rebuilding this unit on the fly and doing so without spending a tremendous amount of the team’s resources. I expect that in 2023 the bullpen will move from being a glaring weakness to one of the strengths of the club.