The Red Sox made a couple of minor deals to fortify their bullpen just before Friday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline, adding durable righthander Hansel Robles from the Twins in exchange for minor league righthander Alex Scherff and acquiring lefty Austin Davis from the Pirates for Michael Chavis. The Red Sox also received cash from the Twins in the Robles deal.
Robles, 30, has struggled this year for the Twins. He’s 3-4 with a 4.91 ERA and 10 saves in 45 games this year. He has a career-low 22.9 percent strikeout rate this season. He also struggled in the compressed 2020 campaign, but in 2019, he had a fantastic year for the Angels, going 5-1 with 23 saves, a 2.48 ERA, and 26.5 percent strikeout rate.
Davis, 28, has allowed seven runs (6 earned) with 11 strikeouts and five walks in 9⅔ innings this year for the Pirates. In 65 career big league games over four seasons, he has a 5.65 ERA. However, he has excellent numbers this year against lefties both in the big leagues (.105 batting average against) and minors (.114 batting average against and .425 OPS).
The Red Sox bullpen has been a strength throughout 2021. The team has a 3.62 bullpen ERA, eighth-best in the majors, with a 26.1 percent strikeout rate that likewise ranks eighth. Matt Barnes has emerged as an All-Star closer, both Adam Ottavino and Josh Taylor have been consistent setup options, and Garrett Whitlock has been a multi-innings weapon out of the bullpen. Hirokazu Sawamura, another valuable middle innings contributor, is expected to be activated for the series against the Rays that starts on Friday.
However, in recent weeks, the team has had growing concern about the workload shouldered by those primary late-innings options. The bullpen ERA has fallen off to 4.22, while the strikeout rate has dropped to 22.6 percent (20th in MLB) in July — perhaps a reflection of the workload of the team’s pitchers over the season.
“We still have a lot of colors on my sheet, and most of them are not green,” manager Alex Cora said earlier this week, describing his daily availability sheet from the training staff that indicates those players who are full-go (green), those whose usage is a concern, and those who are unavailable (red). “Obviously, when you win a lot of games, you use your bullpen a lot, and you use your main guys a lot. That’s the nature of 162. It’s not 60 games like last year. It was a sprint, and you just can go to your guys all the time, all the time, all the time regardless of what happens. Now you have to be very cautious.”
The addition of Robles represents part of that caution, allowing the Sox to add bullpen depth. That avenue proved the direction that made the most sense for the Red Sox as they try to balance a desire to provide reinforcements to a first-place team this year while also trying to avoid a move that would sacrifice too many of the gains made in the farm system.
The Sox had also been exploring the starting pitching market, a natural area to upgrade given that the team’s rotation ERA ranks 20th in the big leagues and worst among the six division leaders. No other division leader has a rotation ERA worse than 3.45.
Yet while the Dodgers have reached an agreement to add Max Scherzer along with star shortstop Trea Turner for two top-100 prospects and the Blue Jays reportedly traded for José Berríos for another pair of top-100 prospects, the Sox didn’t have the depth of elite prospects to comfortably trade for such reinforcements. With the cost of those starters and Rangers righthander Kyle Gibson high, and the rest of the starting pitcher pool uninspiring, the team prioritized adding bullpen depth, at a time when Chris Sale is nearing a return to the rotation.
Scherff, 23, was a fifth-rounder taken by the Red Sox in 2017. He struggled as a starter in his first two full pro seasons in 2018-19, then lost the 2020 season when the minor league season was cancelled. But this year, he was moved to the bullpen and thrived, regularly pitching in the mid- to upper-90s with a good breaking ball, looking like a potential late-innings reliever. He has a 2.45 ERA with 46 strikeouts and 13 walks in 29⅓ innings for High-A Greenville and Double-A Portland.
Chavis, a 2014 first-round selection of the Red Sox, burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2019, hitting .254/.322/.444 with 18 homers in 95 games. But his strikeouts soared as big league pitchers adjusted to his inability to make contact on fastballs at the top of the strike zone, and in 2020-21, he hit .204/.242/.364 with seven homers and a 34.1 percent strikeout rate.