As the Red Sox head into the 2018 season, all seems right with their world. The offseason yielded the best hitter on the market and a good hitting middle infielder, and both came on team-friendly deals. The team’s young players seem ready to blossom under the tutelage of the team’s new and youthful coaching staff. Even the currently and recently injured starting pitchers look ready to make an impact in the near future. If there’s one spot on the team that may not inspire the happy bouncies, though, it’s the back end of the bullpen. No, not the very back end. That should be quite fine under the watchful eye and crushing right arm of Craig Kimbrel. But after him, things get kind of fuzzy. Who exactly are the Red Sox looking at to take on the setup gig?
Perhaps some quick history is in order. The first trade Dave Dombrowski made after taking over the team from Ben Cherington in August of 2015 was to acquire Kimbrel to anchor the bullpen. And that worked. But after Kimbrel? The ’15 Red Sox bullpen was a bit of a hodgepodge. To fix that, Dombrowski dealt for Carson Smith from the Mariners. Smith was coming off a fantastic season in Seattle, and was slated to be the primary setup man in Boston in 2016. He looked great, too, for 6.2 innings before he needed Tommy John surgery. Then last year, with Smith out of action, the Red Sox needed to solve that same problem again. Dombrowski again hit the trade market (because it worked so well the first time) and got Tyler Thornburg from the Brewers. Thornburg didn’t even make it as far as Smith’s 6.2 inning before needing surgery to relieve Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. That necessitated missing the entire 2017 season. Because they were without Smith and Thornburg, the Red Sox traded for Addison Reed during the season, but he became a free agent after the season ended and signed with the Twins.
Somehow Dombrowski managed to avoid dealing for another soon-to-be-hurt reliever this past offseason, which brings us to the present day. It seems we’re back where we started, but in fact, we’re not, because Smith is now healthy and throwing spring training innings. To be precise, he has nine strikeouts, two walks, and two runs allowed in six spring innings. Thornburg threw off a mound for the first time almost three weeks ago, but I can’t find any updates beyond that. Recovery from thoracic outlet syndrome is no sure thing, far less successful on average than Tommy John surgery, which has become somewhat rote in the baseball world.
It says here the Red Sox are planning on handing over the eighth inning to Smith, but there should be some caution exercised as Smith is coming off a major injury. That’s not to say he can’t handle an eighth inning reliever’s workload. There are numerous pitchers who, once they’ve returned from Tommy John, have immediately slotted back into their previous workloads. Yu Darvish and Lance Lynn come to mind, as does reliever Greg Holland. The future may be bright for Mr. Smith when it comes to health, but pitchers returning from Tommy John often don’t have full command for up to a year post-surgery. Maybe Smith will be fine, but there is at least some question about it, and Thornburg is a complete question mark given his current health (?) and the track record of players recovering from similar procedures (what’s now left of Matt Harvey springs to mind).
Beyond Smith and Thornburg, the Red Sox have a lot of that same smorgasbord of hard throwing somewhat erratic relievers they had back in 2016 and since. Last season it worked. Boston’s bullpen ranked fourth in baseball by FanGraphs WAR. That’s not the perfect measurement to rate relievers, but the point is clear: Boston had an effective bullpen in 2017. But! Half of that WAR came from Craig Kimbrel. The rest was split between a ton of mediocre relievers. Boston had 16 relievers throw six or more innings for them last season, and 11 threw 17 or more. That’s partially just the nature of relievers nowadays, but it’s also because the team struggled to find consistency in the late innings outside of Kimbrel.
This year promises more of the same on that front, as Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly will bring their fast fastballs and extremely walky walk rates to the eighth inning party. Barnes was a frequent and often ill-timed victim of the long ball last year. while Kelly probably should’ve been victimized more than he was. Both players could improve — they are relievers after all — but barring that, there likely needs to be some sheltering from specific matchups and bad platoon splits. Doing that limits their availability, and thus their overall value to the team. Brandon Workman merits a mention as well. He’s cut from the Matt Barnes cloth, but minus the strikeouts, which isn’t ideal for a late inning reliever.
Beyond those guys, the ‘pen is mostly just guys who seldom have the stuff or command to advance past the seventh inning. The farm system offers some intriguing arms, but they’re almost universally still starters in the low minors, which is to say bullpen help won’t be coming this season.
The Red Sox are clearly going to try to sort this thing out again over the course of the season. That’s fine. It worked out pretty well the last two seasons, and really, it’s extremely difficult to build a bad bullpen when your starting point is Craig Kimbrel. But Kimbrel can’t pitch all the time. Smith returning as the same guy the Sox thought they were getting from Seattle two years ago would be the best possible scenario, since it would fill the hole in the eighth inning without asking Dombrowski to head out on the trade market where things can get a bit expensive, not to mention dangerous. If Smith can’t be Smith though, the Red Sox will be facing the one part of their roster not ready to compete for a World Series.
Photo by Kim Klement — USA TODAY Sports