A few seasons ago, Matt Barnes surveyed the Red Sox bullpen with Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree, longtime teammates who had spent years together since the minors. Though Barnes was just in his mid 20s, he had an epiphany.
“I said, ‘You know, we’re going to look up one day and the three of us are going to be sitting down here and we’re going to be the old guys sitting down here,’ ” recalled Barnes, now 30. “Sure enough, I look up this year and I’m like, ‘The time has come.’ ”
Once Workman and Hembree were dealt in August, Barnes’s status on the team came into even sharper relief. The last remaining member of the franchise-changing 2011 draft, Barnes has the longest tenure in the Red Sox organization of any pitcher, and in fact is among the longest-tenured relievers in team history.
In 2021, Barnes most likely will become just the fourth pitcher in franchise history with at least five appearances out of the bullpen in eight seasons, joining Bob Stanley (13), Ellis Kinder (8), and Bill Lee (8). He has appeared in 325 career games with the Sox, ninth in team history, with a chance to climb past Derek Lowe, Cy Young, Kinder, and Roger Clemens into the top five by the end of 2021.
“Crazy,” said Barnes. “When you start throwing out names like that, superstars in the history of the organization, to be a part of that is something that’s truly special.”
A few traits have come to typify Barnes’s time in Boston. He has been one of the most durable relievers in baseball, making 62-70 appearances in each year from 2016-19; his 24 appearances in 2020 projected to 65 in a full 162-game season.
“I pride myself a lot on the ability to go out there and be able to take the ball every single day,” he said.
He has emerged as a late-innings option thanks to elite strikeout rates over the last four years on the strength of his elevated high-90s fastball and power curve. His extremely high walk rates create some stressful innings and the occasional multi-run derailment.
But a strong case can be made that he has been among the top 30 or so relievers in baseball on a reasonably consistent basis, particularly given that most of his outings are in leveraged situations against the heart of opposing lineups rather than a fixed ninth-inning role.
Yet Barnes is sometimes viewed as being inconsistent. The memories of the blown saves that are an unavoidable part of life as a middle reliever — particularly his struggles against the Yankees (9.53 ERA in 30 appearances, 3.58 against everyone else) — tend to linger longer than the stretches of effectiveness.
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Barnes is aware of his track record. He recognizes that his seasons typically feature five effective months interrupted by about a month “where all hell breaks loose for me,” typically because of either fatigue from extensive usage or simply a decline in the sharpness of execution.
In 2020, that struggle came at the outset of a compressed season that followed a similarly condensed buildup.
His performance through August — a 5.54 ERA with a 26.2 percent strikeout rate and 16.4 percent walk rate — raised concerns, given a decline in velocity (95.5 m.p.h. average four-seam velocity) and strikeout rate, along with a spike in walks. Those struggles suppressed his value at the trade deadline.
But the righthander rebounded in September, with his fastball velocity (96.6), strikeout rate (36.6 percent), and walk rate (9.8 percent) returning to more customary levels. He had a 2.70 ERA while holding hitters to a .189/.268/.297 line.
For the Red Sox, that made the decision to bring back Barnes for 2021 a relative no-brainer. He signed a $4.5 million deal for the season Wednesday in advance of the deadline to tender players a contract offer to retain those not yet eligible for free agency.
Yet on the other side of 2021 lies uncertainty. After the season, Barnes will have the service time necessary for free agency — a possibility that he views as a significant opportunity and achievement.
Yet while the open market is now within view, Barnes happily would forgo it if he and the Red Sox can find common ground on a deal that would run beyond 2021. In fact, the righthander had been in discussions with the Sox about just such a possibility in the spring, before the sport’s abrupt shutdown and transaction freeze in mid-March halted talks.
“I’ve expressed my interest to the front office and ownership of wanting to stay in Boston for the rest of my career,” said Barnes. “We had some conversations about a longer relationship moving forward. And then COVID hit and there were so many things going on with the season shut down and the health and safety, things kind of got put on hold a little bit.
“There had been some discussions on trying to make something work moving forward beyond next season.”
Whether those conversations are revisited remains to be seen. But as Barnes reflected on his time in the Red Sox organization since being taken in the first round of the 2011 draft, the Connecticut native remained hopeful that his potential free agency need not mark an endpoint for his time in Boston.
“We’ll see if there’s more dialogue going forward,” he said. “We’re not going to force anything, but some discussions have been had.
“It’s the only place where I’ve played. It’s a first-class organization. I’d love to spend the rest of my career here.”