The Red Sox don’t have a lot more time. They’re 4.5 games behind Baltimore and slipping with the trade deadline bearing down on them. There are holes in the lineup, the bench, and the starting rotation that all need fixing, and there isn’t much inside the organization available to fix those problems beyond what is causing the problems in the first place. That’s not the case with the bullpen though. That’s the one place where there are some internal fixes available. Nice to have one, I guess.
Boston’s pen currently features seven relievers: Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Robbie Ross, Heath Hembree, Tommy Layne and Matt Barnes. We’ll organize them into three tiers. The top tier includes the first three guys on the list. Say what you will about Kimbrel’s increased home run and walk rate, he’s still an elite option. Koji is visibly aging but for now he’s in this class. Beyond the thought of Tazawa facing anyone who has ever been a part of the Blue Jays organization, he’s a rock in Boston’s pen.
Then there’s the next group. That’s Ross and Hembree. Ross has been susceptible to the home run and he still walks more than you’d like, but he’s been effective. Hembree has been, if anything, even better, but he’s such a fly-ball pitcher that the fear of homers raining from the sky is still there. All in all though, two effective if not elite relievers.
Then there’s the back end of Layne and Barnes. Some might put Barnes in the middle tier, but I don’t because he simply walks too many guys. He’s not immune to homers either, though it’s not a huge problem for him. Mostly he’s a competent reliever, but not an option for the back end of pen because he simply doesn’t throw enough quality strikes or, really, enough strikes. Layne is, I’m sure a nice fellow, but he’s really just a guy. The walks are high, the strikeouts league average or a touch below from the pen, and he doesn’t dominate lefties like you’d think a guy with his arm angle would.
When looking to upgrade the pen, it’s this last tier of guys that I’d look to improve upon. You never like to lose talent for nothing, but this team is all in on winning this season and frankly Layne isn’t doing much to help. Barnes could someday move into the second tier if his command improves, but stashing him back in Pawtucket shouldn’t be any kind of impediment to improving the bullpen in Boston right now.
There are two groups from where to draw that improvement. The first is starting pitchers who have flamed out at the major league level. That would be Roenis Elias and Joe Kelly. Kelly is currently hurt, and his groin injury is coming along slowly. If he returns this season, it should be as a reliever in Pawtucket. See if his stuff plays up in a bullpen role and go from there. In the meantime, Roenis Elias represents an intriguing replacement for Tommy Layne, assuming the team needs a lefty-on-lefty only reliever. Elias has been successful against left handers in his career, holding them to a .658 OPS with a 2.67 K/BB ratio. He has some speed on his fastball and deception from the left side, both of which could play up a bit in the pen. It must be acknowledged that taking a starter and making him a situational lefty isn’t exactly squeezing out all the marrow out of the bone, but in this season of Going All In, maybe it merits a shot.
In his last 10 appearances, Light has thrown 12 innings, struck out 13, walked four, and given up six hits and no runs.
The second group is composed of minor league relievers Pat Light and Kyle Martin. Light is likely the better known of the two, having already made his major league debut earlier this season. His fastball sits in the upper 90s and he’s reported to have reached 100 mph at times. He keeps hitters off that heat with a splitter and slider. The overall package can be downright dominating when the command is there, and after an initial bump in the road at Pawtucket after his call up, Light has been dominant. In his last 10 appearances he’s thrown 12 innings, struck out 13, walked four, and given up six hits and no runs. Overall he has 32 strikeouts and 13 walks in 26.1 innings in Triple-A and all with only one homer allowed. He’s spent time in Triple-A and made an appearance in Boston, so it’s unlikely the 25-year-old would be wowed by the lights (sorry not sorry). (Editor’s note: it is indeed Light who got the call to the majors to replace Eduardo Rodriguez on the roster.)
Pat Light isn’t the only one in Triple-A to pitch well out of the pen. Kyle Martin, the Red Sox 9th round pick in 2013 out of Texas A&M University has been putting up numbers that surpass Light’s. His strikeouts are up (11.3 K/9), his walks down (2.3. BB/9), and his ground ball tendencies help keep the homers down as well with just one given up in 35 innings so far this season. Martin does carry a 4.11 ERA, but his K and BB numbers are quite good and he keeps the ball in the park well so his potential as a fifth or sixth bullpen arm isn’t diminished.
None of these guys are the next Kimbrel, but deployed properly they can be upgrades on the current cast. Send Barnes down and see what Light brings you. See if Elias can help get lefties out better than Layne has been able to, or don’t, just bring up Martin instead. There are, believe it or not, options. And options are good, especially if they represent hope and if they don’t cost the team top prospects like Rafael Devers or Anderson Espinoza. If Andrew Miller is available at reasonable cost, consider making the move, but short of that, there are enough problems elsewhere on this roster that it makes sense to use the team’s resources on a position with fewer internal solutions, which, at least for now, rules out the bullpen.
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