Tomase: Fixing Matt Barnes a critical task for the Red Sox in 2022


Many years ago, I chatted with a GM about then-Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard. The flame-throwing right-hander had just delivered a dominant 2010 with a 1.93 ERA that had fans and media anointing him Jonathan Papelbon's heir apparent.

I ran this theory by the rival exec while noting that Bard had made a remarkable turnaround from the start of his career at Single-A Lancaster, where he had allowed 44 baserunners in just 13.1 innings in 2007 before moving to the bullpen and soaring to the big leagues.

"Yeah, but once you know that's in there ..." he said, his voice trailing off. He didn't have to finish the sentence: Once you know it's in there, it can always come back.

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And so it is that I've been thinking about Matt Barnes and what the Red Sox can expect out of their All-Star closer-turned-taxi-squad reliever. His 2021 was mystifying in any number of ways, from the hot start and lightning-quick pace after years of nibbling, to the complete and utter collapse that first cost him the ninth inning and then his spot on the postseason roster.

The Red Sox remain confident that Barnes will rediscover the form that made him one of the most desirable relievers in baseball. They don't have much of a choice, since they just signed him to a two-year, $18.75 million extension through 2023.

But they also don't really know what the future holds. Barnes looked completely lost, and once you know that's in there ... it will be a challenge to make sure it doesn't come back.

No one saw this coming. The contract looked good the day Barnes inked it in July, shortly after being selected to his first All-Star team. Blessed with a dominant fastball and curveball, and battle-tested through 12 postseason appearances that produced a miniscule 0.79 ERA, the homegrown right-hander looked like a safe bet.

Then came August, and with it a rapid collapse. In the span of four days, Barnes blew three games, allowing a walkoff homer to Marcus Semien in Toronto, a go-ahead homer to former college teammate George Springer the next afternoon, and then a tiebreaking single as part of a four-run ninth vs. the Rays. The miscues came at the exact point in the season, after the trade deadline, when the Red Sox most risked falling out of the playoff race entirely.

They righted the ship, but no thanks to Barnes. He took five days off, looked shaky in a couple of garbage appearances, and then blew his next save opportunity vs. the Rangers on Aug. 23, a game the Red Sox salvaged on Travis Shaw's walkoff grand slam.

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Just like that, Barnes morphed from sure thing to question mark, and he never found his way back. The Red Sox didn't dress him for the wild card vs. the Yankees, gave him one bad inning vs. the Rays in the ALDS as an injury replacement, and then left him off the ALCS roster entirely, a fall from grace that should've been stunning but instead felt inevitable. By that point we knew that Barnes was lost for 2021, replaced by Ryan Brasier and Hansel Robles, among others.

So that brings us to 2022. The Red Sox will undoubtedly implement a number of mechanical fixes, and maybe they'll work. But like Bard before him, the struggles felt mental as much as anything else, though it's possible Barnes tired in the face of heavy usage.

The characteristics that marked his success in the first half -- an up-tempo pace and a willingness to attack for strike one -- disappeared by September. Barnes bore the body language of someone broken, hanging his head, staring at hits in confusion, and trying to talk himself into success as if he needed more convincing than anyone that he could do it.

Maybe with months to decompress, he'll figure this out in spring training and hit the season on the dead sprint. He could easily reclaim the ninth inning, and he could even conceivably be an All-Star again.

The problem will come down the stretch, assuming the Red Sox remain in playoff contention. When the games start meaning a little more, and the margin for error decreases, and the war of attrition ratchets up the physical intensity, how will Barnes respond?

Even if you're inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, once you know that's in there ...

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