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Analyzing the State of the Red Sox Bullpen

Last year, Boston dominated Major League Baseball. At the risk of repeating something you’ve already read 100 times, the Red Sox won 108 regular-season games and won 11 of 14 games in three playoff series. The best season in franchise history was accomplished despite a bullpen that was the source of concern throughout the year.

What’s the status of this year’s bullpen and how will it impact the team’s chances of back-to-back World Series titles? Here are some thoughts to answer that broad question.

The bullpen last year was led by Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Steven Wright, Bobby Poyner, and closer Craig Kimbrel. While it was definitely the weakest part of the team and was worrisome among the fans of Red Sox Nation, the numbers were surprisingly solid.

Red Sox relievers combined to post a 3.72 ERA, which ranked ninth among 30 major-league teams. That’s pretty good … and could have been better. Robby Scott threw 6.2 innings and posted an abysmal 8.10 ERA. Left-hander Drew Pomeranz, originally a starter, was demoted to the pen where he continued to struggle. He threw 22.2 innings in relief and posted a 5.56 ERA. It’s easy to see how that 3.72 ERA might have been better.

That said, 2018 is history. Spring training is already halfway complete, and Opening Day is just two weeks away. The 2018 Red Sox lineup is largely intact but the bullpen has seen some major departures.

Kelly, a playoff hero, and Craig Kimbrel, the best active closer in the majors, both reached free agency. In December, Kelly signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Kimbrel is still a free agent, but the Red Sox, squeezed by the penalties of surpassing the luxury tax, have indicated they aren’t interested in re-signing him.

Adding to the bullpen uncertainty, Wright was recently suspended 80 games for steroid abuse. The knuckleballer tested positive for human growth hormone, which is used by athletes to accelerate the healing of injuries. With Wright sidelined for half of the season, that’s another void to fill.

So, they need to fill two reliever spots, plus the closer. Pomeranz isn’t in the mix either, as he also left in free agency. Any additions will have to come through trades with other teams or through the Red Sox farm system. The farm system has been ranked as one of the worst in the majors, largely because general manager Dave Dombrowski used its best prospects as trade pieces to build the 2018 team.

Spring training is basically an audition for pitchers. As of this writing, the Red Sox have 13 spring training games remaining. Here are some of the young players who have time to make an impression.

RHP Matthew Gorst, in 3.2 innings, has only 2 hits, 2 walks, 1 strikeout, and no earned runs.

RHP Trevor Kelley, in 2.2 innings, has yet to allow a single hit.

In 3.1 innings, RHP Adam Lau has given up 2 hits and 3 walks, but he’s also punched out 4 with no runs.

LHP Daniel McGrath, in just over 1 inning, has 1 hit, 1 walk, and 1 strikeout.

LHP Darwinzon Hernandez, one of the more highly anticipated prospects, has thrown 8 innings and given up 5 hits, 5 walks, and 1 run. He’s also struck out 11.

RHP Marcus Walden, who saw some time in the majors last year, has thrown 8 innings this spring. In that time he’s given up 6 hits and 1 run, but he’s also got 8 punchouts.

RHP Domingo Tapia has thrown 6.2 innings and given up 7 hits and 2 runs, one of which was a homerun, with 6 walks and 2 strikeouts.

RHP Travis Lakins, the most anticipated pitcher the Red Sox have in the farm, has thrown 7 innings. In that time, he’s given up 8 hits, 2 runs, and 3 walks with 2 strikeouts.

RHP Mike Shawarym, in 4.1 innings, has allowed 6 hits, 2 runs, and 3 walks, while collecting 7 strikeouts.

LHP Bobby Poyner has major-league experience. Last season he was effective out of the bullpen. He didn’t make the postseason roster, but I suppose it was due to his inexperience. This year, he’s vying for a roster spot. To that end, he’s thrown 7 innings, allowing 5 hits, 2 runs, 2 walks, and he’s punched out 5. His spring training hasn’t been quite as dominant as his 2018 season, but he might just be rusty after not throwing for six months.

Finally, we come to Jenrry Mejia. Unlike every other guy I listed, Mejia isn’t a minor leaguer. He was a reliever with the Mets for a good number of years. That ended in 2016 when he was banned from the league for life after testing positive for PEDs. He had already received two prior PED suspensions .

Last year, the ban was lifted, and the Red Sox sent him a spring training invite. Personally, I’m not ready to trust him just yet in terms of staying clean. But maybe hitting rock bottom is enough for him to finally turn things around, and it’s not like the Red Sox can afford to turn away a decent arm right now. So far, Mejia has thrown 4 innings and allowed 3 hits, 2 earned runs, and a walk. What’s interesting is that in those 4 innings, he’s got 5 strikeouts.

So, to recap and organize everything legibly:

Player Innings Hits Earned Runs Walks Strikeouts
Matthew Gorst 3.2 2 0 2 1
Trevor Kelley 2.2 0 0 0 1
Adam Lau 3.1 2 0 3 4
Daniel McGrath 1.1 1 0 1 1
Darwinzon Hernandez 8 5 1 5 11
Marcus Walden 8 6 1 2 8
Domingo Tapia 6.2 7 2 ER* 6 2
Travis Lakins 7 8 2 3 2
Mike Shawarym 4.1 6 2 3 7
Bobby Poyner 7 5 2 2 5
Jenrry Mejia 4 3 2 1 5

*1 ER was a home run

Out of these 11, I’m most interested in Hernandez, Lau, Walden, and Mejia. I also want Poyner to grab a roster spot, because he was excellent in his role last year. I did like what I saw from Mike Shawarym, but he and Travis Lakins were optioned back to the minors on March 12. Here, I’m looking at the guys who have shown high strikeout rates relative to the innings pitched.

I’m paying attention to the strikeout numbers for one reason: the Yankees. They will surely be Boston’s toughest challenge during the regular season, and probably the postseason as well. Two of the biggest New York stars – Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton – are the team’s primary drivers. They also have abnormally high strikeout rates. Last year, the Yankees hit the most home runs in history, but they were also the ninth most susceptible team to strikeouts. A Boston bullpen capable of punch outs could be invaluable.

It’s important to remember that not all of Boston’s relief additions have to come from the internal system. They have assets they could trade for relievers.

The team has already stated that they’ll be moving one of three catchers – Sandy Leon, Christian Vasquez or Blake Swihart. Vasquez has more or less proven himself in spring training. I also don’t think the team would be heartless enough to move Swihart after the tragic death of his young brother, so I’d expect Leon to be packing his bags and shipping out in the next couple weeks. He’s one of the best defensive catchers in the game, but a liability at the plate.

I have nothing to base this on; it’s pure speculation. But there are some prospects in the farm system who I could also see being traded for relievers. For instance, Michael Chavis, a third/first baseman who cracked the MLB Top 100 Prospects this year; Tzu-Wei Lin, a Taiwanese player who played several games with the Sox last year; Bobby Dalbec, a hulking third baseman who has shown solid offensive power, and Tate Matheny, the son of Cardinals ex-manager Mike Matheny are prospects that could bring pitching help in a trade.

Rebuilding the bullpen is one goal but finding a closer is most important. Analysts agree that the last three outs of a game are the toughest outs to get, especially in a save situation. The honor of GOAT closer goes to Mariano Rivera, who just a couple of months ago became the first player to be unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame. That’s how important the closer is.

Kimbrel is the best closer in the game today. His 1.94 career ERA is ridiculous. He struggled last year in the postseason with the Red Sox, giving up runs in almost every game during the ALDS and ALCS, but he’s still left behind a large gap to be filled. So, who can possibly fill it?

Unless the Sox reach out to Kimbrel, the closer role will be filled through a trade or by someone currently on the roster. Namely: Matt Barnes or Ryan Brasier.

Barnes has come up in the Red Sox system. He made his debut in 2014, and has been a dependable, if shaky, performer. He’s got a postseason mentality, which could translate well to being the closer.

Brasier’s story is much more interesting. He’s 31 years old. Early in his career, he went to Japan and when he returned, signed with Boston. Months later, he was pitching in the World Series. During the regular season, he was arguably the most reliable reliever the Red Sox had.

So, the choice for the closer role comes down to these two, and it’s not a simple choice.

Barnes is a known quantity. He’s got far more postseason experience than Brasier, which I think would transfer well to a closer role. Brasier, however, had a far better year than Barnes, posting a 1.60 ERA in 33.2 regular-season innings. Barnes struggled a bit more last year, posting a 3.65 ERA in 61.2 innings. Looking at Barnes’ career numbers doesn’t instill much confidence either: He has a 4.14 ERA in 250 innings. However, his postseason numbers, while limited to a small sample size, are excellent. In 10 innings, his ERA is a ridiculous 0.87.

Honestly, either choice is a gamble. Brasier has shown more ability on the mound, but Barnes is far more familiar to the team. Ultimately, I think it will be Barnes. He’s had excellent postseason performances, and if he could adapt that mindset to a closer role, he could be solid.

The preferred choice is bringing Kimbrel back on a one-year deal. He needs a job, and the Red Sox need a real closer. But that just isn’t going to happen. So, it’ll likely be Barnes. We’ll see how my prediction plays out.

So that’s the bullpen situation for Boston. They need to fill quite a few roles, but they’ve got the resources to do so. The Red Sox are still in a great spot. The bullpen is the only area of concern. Barring unforeseen calamities, Boston should make it back to the postseason.

I expect a deep October run. I want back-to-back championships. The Red Sox are set to do it. The team will fill the holes where they need to and get to where they need to go. The bullpen will be a big part of that. See you in October.

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