With bullpen uncertainty, Red Sox have rare, enviable opportunity


BOSTON -- Everyone might be missing the boat when it comes to the inexperience of the Red Sox bullpen.


“Without a returning lockdown eighth-inning guy, we’re about settling into some roles as quick as possible,” Sox manager John Farrell said Monday morning, before a 5-3 win over the Pirates on opening day. “There’s going to be a little more matching up right now, before we bridge to [Craig] Kimbrel in the ninth. So you take some of the momentum that certain guys have coming out of spring training throwing the ball.”

Never mind the logic of relying on the hot hand out of spring training, which is debatable. (Joe Kelly’s 98 mph fastball all of a sudden isn’t to be trusted because he looked a little shaky in the Grapefruit League?)

The Sox definitely do need to sort out the bullpen. But what categories they put guys into, and how rigid the roles should become is really the question.

There’s a rare opportunity here.

The Red Sox don’t have a blank canvas, exactly. But they have something closer to it than most teams can find.

Outside of closer Craig Kimbrel this is not a group of established pitchers. Of guys set on doing one thing.

Excellent! Keep it going!

Teach them to be up in the air. Teach them this is what the norm looks like. 

The Sox that way can then push their reliever usage toward a more fluid, more progressive look -- rather than the old closer, set-up, middle relief structures of yore. 

Don't go 0 to 60. Just move carefully away from the old school.

“Really, not any one of those guys had established roles in bullpens prior to this year, or coming into this year,” pitching coach Carl Willis said. “So it’s almost like, you look at who has the hot hand coming out of spring training right now and who’s best equipped. 

“So in saying that, I don’t want to call it inexperience, because those guys have obviously been in the major leagues. But we’ll see how it settles. Certainly, going with the hot hand right now, particularly with [Matt] Barnes and [Heath] Hembree, who have been throwing the ball better . . . lately than a couple of the other guys.”

Settle it, but don’t fully settle it. Leave some ambiguity.

Robbie Ross Jr. said in the middle of the spring this is the first time he ever felt like he’s had a job. Ironically, he’s fallen behind on the southpaw depth chart to start the season.

Barnes started to learn how to be a reliever back in 2014 but last year was the biggest learning experience. Kelly hasn’t been out of the rotation a year yet.

“I think everything in the bullpen I did last year I kind of learned along the way,” Barnes said.

Barnes has done well in jams. With help of a fine Andrew Benintendi catch in left field on Monday — plus a good game plan against the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen for an inning-ending strikeout — Barnes cleaned up a mess in the seventh inning with minimal damage.

Right now, he knows things are up in the air. He said the right thing when asked about the effect of uncertainty on the 'pen.

“A lot of guys have done a lot of different roles,” Barnes said. “Guys will be ready. We’ll stay on our toes.”

The model the Indians famously used in the postseason, using Andrew Miller in whatever inning as the biggest weapon of all, isn’t too reasonable to expect in the regular season. 

Pitchers like routine. Relievers like to know when they’re going to come in. Consistency in preparation helps in a long season. That’s not going to change. 

So find a middle ground.

These roles Farrell speaks of: don’t make it eighth-inning guy.

Make it the sometimes eighth-inning guy or sometimes seventh-inning guy. The high leverage guy. And the other high leverage guy. And so on.

It sounds like the Sox might be thinking the same way.

“I don’t necessarily know that you can put inning roles on it,” Willis said. “When you utilize match-ups and you look at the opposition’s lineup there are times when we are talking about, particularly the seventh and eighth inning, there may be a better match-up with a guy who we deem our eighth inning guy: hey, maybe he’s better in the seventh tonight, because of where are in the order in the seventh. We have that flexibility.”

Keep the flexibility. Expand it. Push it. 

Kimbrel may be resistant to change, but the aw-shucks-just-happy-to-be-here Robby Scotts of the world shouldn’t be. Barnes doesn’t seem to be. Kelly’s new to this.

They can still be molded. Shape this thing the right way rather than rush into a 7-8-9, Junichi Tazawa-Koji Uehara-Craig Kimbrel way of life.

Contact Us