Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com (March 30, 2018 – Source: Brian Blanco/Getty Images North America)
The Boston Red Sox find themselves 6-1 and alone at the top of the AL East after six games. The offense has been slow out of the gate, and the stellar record is primarily thanks to the starting pitching. However, while the starters have been phenomenal, there has been some concern about the state of the bullpen. While it’s not the best unit in the league, the Red Sox bullpen is better than you probably think it is, and it’s set to get even better.
Boston Red Sox Bullpen is in a surprisingly good place
The Setup Arms
Craig Kimbrel is the arguably the best closer in the game, and nobody is concerned about him. However, Kimbrel can’t face every batter, and concern has spread throughout Red Sox nation about how capable Matt Barnes, Carson Smith, and Joe Kelly are to hold a lead until Kimbrel can come in.
This fear is based primarily due to two separate eighth innings against the Rays. In the season opener, Kelly and Smith blew a four-run lead. In the home opener, Smith gave up a 2-run bomb in a 0-0 game. However, aside from those two innings, the bullpen has been solid.
Barnes in particular has been interesting to watch. Granted, six games in is an incredibly small sample size, but his early returns have been particularly impressive. Barnes struggled in high-pressure situations last season, but so far he’s performed well in bigger moments. Yes, he almost lost the second game of the Marlins series, but his work against Tampa Bay was encouraging to say the least.
After Price’s phenomenal game two start, Barnes took the ball with the Red Sox holding a 1-0 lead in the eight. It doesn’t get more high pressure than that, and Barnes got out of the inning only allowing a walk. Two games later, with Kimbrel unavailable, Barnes once more came into the eighth inning holding a one-run lead. While Joe Kelly earned the save, Barnes actually faced a higher-pressure situation, as manager Alex Cora specifically put Barnes in to face the heart of the order. Once more, Barnes answered the call and got out of the inning with no trouble.
Smith’s two blown holds are certainly concerning, but he’s had his positive outings too. Kelly’s appearances are always terrifying, but this is who he is. He’s an incredibly streaky pitcher, and right now he’s in a bad streak. Sooner or later, he’ll turn it around and look like one of the most dominant arms in baseball.
The Depth Arms
The Red Sox broke camp with two unexpected names on the roster. Bobby Poyner and Marcus Walden both made the opening day roster, despite not being on the 40-man roster entering camp. Both players have seen action in close games, and the results have generally been positive.
Poyner has been a clear upgrade on former lefty specialist Robby Scott. Poyner has only allowed one run all season, and has demonstrated the ability to get both righties and lefties out. This is a trait that Scott lacked, as he pitched 1.1 and two innings in his previous two appearances. These long stretches keep the rest of the bullpen fresh, which has been incredibly valuable due to the back-to-back extra innings games. He’s shown the ability to get lefties and righties out in the minors, so this probably isn’t a fluke. With Smith’s struggles, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cora turn to Poyner in more high-pressure situations.
Walden has been more of a mixed bag. The career minor leaguer is one of the better stories in camp, but doesn’t offer much as a major leaguer. He’s made two appearances so far in the season, and both have been rocky. While his first appearance looks good in a box score, watching the game was a different story. Walden pitches 1.1 scoreless innings, but gave up a lot of hard contact that happened to find gloves. His second appearance was mop-up duty against the Marlins, but he gave up two runs in two innings, and almost brought the Marlins back into it.
Poyner could easily be a mainstay, but Walden can easily be upgraded. Fortunately, bullpen upgrades should be coming for Boston very soon.
Bullpen upgrades from within
The Red Sox opened the season with Eduardo Rodriguez, Steven Wright, and Drew Pomeranz, three of their top-six pitchers, out of the rotation. All three are scheduled to return soon, meaning that the Red Sox pitching depth just got a lot deeper.
Hector Velazquez will be optioned to Pawtucket, but the same cannot be said for Brian Johnson. Johnson’s all out of options, and there’s no way the Sox would be foolish enough to designate him for assignment. This means Cora will move the lefty to the bullpen, where he will immediately become the third or fourth best relief option.
Additionally, the starting rotation isn’t big enough for Rodriguez, Pomeranz, and Wright. With Wright clearly being the worst of the three, he’ll shift into the bullpen to serve as the long arm. All of a sudden, the Red Sox bullpen how has four or five guys capable of bridging the gap to Kimbrel.
The Sox will demote Walden back to Pawtucket, and what they do with the other spot is anyone’s guess. However, whatever the Sox do, their bullpen should be a more than serviceable unit. Between an absolutely stacked starting rotation, a strong offense, and a good bullpen, the 2018 Red Sox have no glaring holes on the roster.