Boston Red Sox: Can the bullpen thrive as currently constructed?

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 26: Ryan Brasier #70 of the Boston Red Sox delivers the pitch during the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game Three of the 2018 World Series at Dodger Stadium on October 26, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 26: Ryan Brasier #70 of the Boston Red Sox delivers the pitch during the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game Three of the 2018 World Series at Dodger Stadium on October 26, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

As opening day creeps closer it’s become clear that the Boston Red Sox have no plans to overhaul their less than impressive bullpen. Could this decision cost the team big in 2019?

This offseason the Boston Red Sox lost closer Craig Kimbrel and fireballer Joe Kelly, two of their highest usage relief pitchers, to free agency. Since then the team has done nothing to fortify their bullpen, opting instead to let the weakest component of last year’s team grow even weaker.

Any hopes that this might change before the start of the regular season were dashed this week when president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski made clear that the team is done acquiring players in preparation for the upcoming season. Essentially this means that the Sox bullpen as currently constructed is the group that they will ride with in 2019 as they pursue another championship in an ever-improving AL East; how successful they will be is largely dependent on two pitchers: Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes.

But, before we talk about Brasier and Barnes, let’s take a look at the impact the absence of Kelly and Kimbrel will have on the team. Last year the pair combined for 128 IP, which made up just under a quarter of all of the work put in by the Red Sox bullpen. It’s worth noting that both pitchers saw the majority of their innings come in high leverage situations; Kelly and Kimbrel’s average leverage index ranked first and third respectively among the Sox pen, with only Barnes sitting between the two.

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These late game, high leverage innings will matter even more in 2019 than they did the season before thanks to improved Yankees and Rays rosters that could make the race for the division legitimately competitive.

Looking at last years pitcher usage in the context of this year’s roster it makes sense to expect that Barnes will be asked to step up and take on more of a late game workload. He’s coming off of the best season of his career, and his numbers over the past three years show consistent improvement that can still be built on.

Headed into his 6th big league season Barnes will be given the chance to show what kind of pitcher he really is, and stands to benefit more than anybody from the Sox’s thin bullpen situation. If he can bring the momentum from last year into 2019 he’ll likely find himself positioned as the pen leader; if he can’t then things will look pretty rough for the team after the starter gets pulled.

Barnes isn’t the only pitcher the Sox will be counting on to take a leading role in relief next year. Ryan Brasier was a major surprise in 2018, putting in impressive outing after an impressive outing that proved he was a big league talent after his July call up.

With his limited experience, Brasier is a wild card compared to Barnes, but one could argue that he has more potential upside. One thing that makes him such a threat is his masterful fastball, which opposing batters only slug .183 against.

He and Kimbrel’s fastballs were actually similar in effectiveness last year, and if he continues to overpower batters with the pitch he could find himself in the closer role for the Sox. Again, with only one real big league season under his belt this is a big if, but the prospect is fairly exciting for Red Sox fans who might feel burnt after the team let Kimbrel walk.

Outside of potential (not guaranteed) good seasons from Brasier and Barnes, there isn’t much to look forward to about this Sox bullpen.

After his World Series heroics, some postulated that Nathan Eovaldi might be used in a combined starter/reliever role in 2019, but this isn’t super likely.

Eovaldi only saw 3.1 innings out of the pen prior to the playoffs last season, and his late-game usage can be chalked up more to postseason strategy than a sustainable regular season plan; things would probably have to get pretty bad for the Sox to switch Eovaldi out of a regular rotation role, especially in the season’s first few months.

In short, the Sox bullpen is on very thin ice.

The team will be super dependant on unproven relief arms, and if we get to July and the race for the AL East is still a toss up they’ll probably be forced to make a trade for some higher quality relievers. The Sox don’t have much of a farm system, so that might mean sacrificing some major league ready talent for the good of the pen.

This possibility wouldn’t exist if the Sox had invested during the offseason, but with the prospect of more free agent signings off of the table, it’s a reality that fans need to be ready for.

Luckily, the Red Sox are so overpowered in pretty much every other area that they could afford to lose a bat or two if it meant locking up the back end of games en route to another deep postseason run.

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So, as frustrating as the bullpen situation is, it likely won’t cost the team big. At most, it puts the ball in Tampa Bay’s/New York’s court to make a run, something the Boston Red Sox are well equipped otherwise to defend against, especially if Brasier and Barnes are able to deliver.