If the last two postseasons have taught us anything, it’s that the value of relief pitchers increases in October. Old friend Terry Francona reinforced this idea/jammed it down our collective throats when he had the group of Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen pitch what was effectively one entire game of the three Boston and Cleveland played in the ALDS. Given how good Miller is, and Allen and Shaw are pretty good too, this was borderline unfair. Miller himself threw four innings, and it might have been more had Corey Kluber not shut the Red Sox down in Game Two.
Want to guess how many innings Craig Kimbrel threw all series? 1 1/3. Yeah. So. Anyway.
When you take two occurrences: 1) Francona’s lethal (to the other team) bullpen usage and 2) Buck Showalter’s lethal (to his own team) refusal to use Zach Britton in an elimination game he eventually lost because no save situation had presented itself yet, it seems we are at one of those tipping points in baseball where before things were a certain way and now they are different. This, combined with the bullpen-based success enjoyed by the Kansas City Royals over the previous two seasons, means that we are going to see a change in the way teams value and presumably treat relief pitchers.
The point is relievers were already valued highly, but after this season, they’re going to be even more expensive to get. Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman will both be free agents this offseason, but they’re going to get contracts that heretofore would have been unheard of for a reliever. The reality that signing either will likely cost the signing teams their first-round draft pick as well means these are going to be expensive additions to any ballclub.
Fortunately the Red Sox already have Craig Kimbrel. Whatever you think of the deal that brought him to Boston and the way he pitched at the very end of the regular season, Kimbrel is an elite-level closer and should be up to filling that role in 2017. That doesn’t mean the Red Sox can’t or shouldn’t sign Jansen, but it means they don’t absolutely have to. In fact, despite popular perception, the Red Sox are in a pretty good spot with their bullpen.
In fact, to prove this point, let’s look at how the Red Sox could build a good bullpen from players currently available to them. Any bullpen requires depth; the more capable guys you have, the better your team will be able to overcome the inevitable injuries that crop up during a 162-game season. That said, to avoid getting too far into the weeds, I’m going to focus on the opening-day roster. The Red Sox started last season with eight relievers on their roster, but now with the retirement of David Ortiz, it’s possible John Farrell decides to expand the bench by one for better flexibility.
Going into the 2017 season, the Red Sox are virtually guaranteed to have the following in their bullpen:
Craig Kimbrel (Closer)
Robbie Ross (LHP)
Matt Barnes (RHP)
Despite the way the postseason has played out, we shouldn’t expect anything more from Kimbrel than to pitch the ninth inning during the regular season. Ross was a bit under the radar this year but was an effective weapon against both right-handed hitters and lefties, holding the former to a .660 OPS and the latter to a .545 OPS. He’s a lefty but doesn’t need to be used only against his own kind, meaning he’s likely the seventh inning guy who can step into the eighth or sixth inning if circumstances dictate it. That opens the door to a different lefty specialist if the Red Sox want.
Then there’s Matt Barnes. He was markedly better this season than last, bringing up the strikeouts and dropping the home-run rate. There’s still a walks problem there, though, which makes him tough to trust in important situations. Yet given his youth and inexperience out of the bullpen, it’s not crazy to think there’s maybe another gear in there somewhere. Even if he only replicates 2016, Barnes is worth rostering.
That’s three. The fourth is probably Joe Kelly. Considering his success out of the pen at both the end of the season (14 innings, 20 strikeouts, 0.64 ERA) and in the playoffs (3 2/3 innings, three strikeouts, no baserunners allowed), it’s intriguing to think what he could do over a full season. Between he, Barnes and Kimbrel, the Red Sox have three guys who can hit the upper-90s with ease.
That’s a pretty solid top four, but that wasn’t in doubt. The trick is finding quality for the rest of the spots, as those guys are going to have to pitch too. Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara are both free agents. One or both could be brought back, but for now, let’s let them both go and see what we can do internally.
Although Robby Scott didn’t make the postseason roster, he did pitch well for Boston during the stretch run (six innings, five strikeouts, two walks, no runs). His time in Triple-A has shown he can get hitters from both sides of the plate out, but his funky side-arm delivery is probably best against mostly — if not exclusively — left handed hitters. Still, he’s a young guy who has had success and represents a different look than the high heat from most of the other bullpen members listed above.
There’s something about the way Heath Hembree throws. Whatever it is makes it near impossible for right-handed hitters to hit, but lefties all turn into Jose Altuve against him. Still, considering most batters are right-handed, and Hembree’s ability to give multiple innings in games where the result has already been decided one way or the other, he has value. If Farrell starts to shelter him against lefties a bit more than he has previously done, his results might even improve.
So that’s four top relievers and two platoon specialists. After that, the Red Sox have some choices. Fernando Abad could be tendered a contract, though if Scott is going to be on the major-league roster, the Red Sox don’t need another lefty specialist, especially one who projects to cost four-to-six times more. Roenis Elias is another option if the team wants to move him to relief full time. His potential in the pen is intriguing, but it’s difficult to count on a guy in a role he’s never played before.
And now having said that, I’m going to contradict myself. Kyle Martin isn’t on the 40-man roster, so he didn’t get a call-up in September, but the 6-foot-7 reliever was very effective out of the pen in Triple-A, striking out 78 in 66.2 innings. He has the control and command to back those strikeouts up with a reasonable walk rate, and he only surrendered five homers last season. Martin’s the perfect last reliever in that he could be good, or the Red Sox can easily send him back down without losing him.
In addition, Brandon Workman could be back and healthy at the start of the season. At some point, potentially around the first month or so of the season, the Red Sox could see the return of Carson Smith as well.
It’s undoubtedly true that the Red Sox bullpen would be improved with the addition of either Chapman or Jansen. Any bullpen would. But the cost, the loss of available funds to devote to other parts of the roster, the loss of a draft pick and the money associated with that pick, combine to make doing so significantly expensive. That doesn’t mean the Red Sox shouldn’t explore the free-agent market for relievers. They could bring back Uehara, Tazawa or even Brad Ziegler, any of which would move either Martin or Scott to Triple-A.
But the important thing is the Red Sox don’t have to do any of those things. The bones and flesh of a good bullpen are already here. With the departure of David Ortiz and the arbitration raises due to the team’s young stars, if there is money to be spent, it should probably go to a player who can contribute in the middle of the lineup with the bat, not one who will throw just 60 innings.
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