Red Sox bullpen preview: Sorting out the closer situation and more

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No Boston Red Sox player has more pressure on them to begin the 2022 season than Matt Barnes.

The right-hander was among the game's elite closers for the first half of 2021. He made his first MLB All-Star team after converting 19-of-23 save chances and boasting a 2.61 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, and a 63:11 K/BB over 38 innings pitched. The effort earned him a two-year, $18.75 million contract extension.

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Barnes' season quickly unraveled from there. The 31-year-old's ERA bloated to 6.48 and his WHIP to 1.62 during the second half of the campaign. Those struggles cost him both the closer role and a spot on the team's American League Championship Series roster.

As Barnes enters the new season, it isn't a matter of whether he can regain early-2021 form. It's a matter of whether he'll be a reliable option at all. His spring training numbers aren't all that promising, and his dip in velocity has been a concern.

Manager Alex Cora candidly discussed those issues Saturday in Fort Myers, Fla. He attributes them to a mechanical flaw in Barnes' delivery.

“I think it’s something about his leg kick,” Cora said. “Last year he was a lot tighter. Now he’s like loose. If you want to use a reference, it’s like a figure skater. When you open, it slows down. When you close, you’re actually faster, quicker. So hopefully that’s what gets him going. Kind of engaged in his delivery. And then he doesn’t have to create. Right now, mechanically he’s so off and then he tries to create velocity and it’s not there. ...

“Hopefully his [velocity] ticks up before we get there, because that was a game-changer last year: [velocity] and attacking. So we’ll take a look at it and keep working with him. But that’s something that caught my attention today."

Not exactly what Sox fans want to hear about their presumed closer less than a week before Opening Day.

If Barnes can't be trusted as the closer in 2022, who will step up in his place? That's one of several intriguing bullpen storylines to monitor this season, though there seems to be one obvious option. More on that below...

The Garrett Whitlock conundrum

Whitlock came out of nowhere last season to anchor the Red Sox bullpen and become the club's most reliable reliever. The breakout campaign led many to wonder how the right-hander might be used in 2022. Same late-inning role as last year? Closer? Starter?

Cora already answered one of those questions by confirming Whitlock will come out of the bullpen. There's been no official word yet on who will take the "closer" title, but it appears Barnes will begin the season with the opportunity. If that fails, it'd make sense to give Whitlock a shot.

To say Whitlock was good in his debut season would be a massive understatement. He was among the most dominant relief pitchers in baseball. The 25-year-old recorded a 1.96 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 46 appearances (73 1/3 innings pitched).

Throwing Whitlock out of his usual role and into those high-pressure situations is a risk, but it's one the Red Sox should be willing to take if Barnes can't cut it.

If not Barnes or Whitlock, then who?

So, what if Barnes struggles and Whitlock isn't the answer?

That's a question fans undoubtedly are asking as they look at Boston's Opening Day roster. The names in the bullpen don't exactly jump off the page, but perhaps one of their offseason additions will do.

Southpaws Jake Diekman and Matt Strahm were signed earlier in March to stabilize the back end of the 'pen. Diekman figures to be the more likely closer candidate as Strahm has spent most of his MLB career in a middle relief role.

Diekman was solid in his last two years with the Oakland Athletics. The 35-year-old posted a sparkling 0.42 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 21 1/3 innings during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. He followed that up with a 3.86 ERA and 1.34 WHIP with seven saves in 60 2/3 innings last year.

The problem is Diekman's spring training struggles haven't inspired confidence in his ability to come through in high-leverage situations. He's allowed seven runs on seven walks and four hits in 4 2/3 innings (five appearances). He also drilled two batters.

Other notable bullpen arms include Ryan Braiser, Hirokazu Sawamura, and Darwinzon Hernandez. Brasier and Sawamura have struggled in spring and Hernandez will begin the year in Triple-A.

So, yeah, not a whole lot of options to work with other than Barnes or Whitlock.

Get to know 'em

When you look at the Red Sox Opening Day roster, there's a couple of names in the bullpen you may not be all that familiar with.

The team announced Tyler Danish, who signed to a minor league deal this offseason, and prospect Kutter Crawford made the squad out of camp. Danish has 11 MLB games under his belt while Crawford has only one -- his big-league debut last year.

Danish was selected by the Chicago White Sox in the second round of the 2013 MLB Draft. The 27-year-old amassed a 4.85 ERA and 2.31 WHIP over 13 innings pitched. He tallied 11 strikeouts but walked a whopping 13 batters. Last season he posted a 5-3 record and a 3.84 ERA in 70 1/3 innings split between the Angels' Double-A and Triple-A affiliates.

Crawford, the organization's No. 16 ranked prospect, allowed five runs in two innings during his lone appearance last season. He's impressed this spring with a fastball sitting in the 96-97 mph range. That's helped him allow only one run while striking out eight over four innings of work. A small sample size, but encouraging for the 26-year-old nonetheless.

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