The value of the starting pitcher has diminished in baseball. Each postseason, including this year’s, is a reminder of that. It’s rare these days when teams allow starters to go a third time through the order or deep into a game. Based on the data provided by analytically driven front offices, offensive production increases the longer starters stay in the game.
Enter the reliever, whose value has never been so high.
The Red Sox bullpen was somewhat of a mixed bag in 2021. It was tied for eighth in strikeout percentage (25.6 percent) but also tied for the sixth-highest walk rate (10.8 percent).
The bullpen’s collective ERA (3.99) ranked 13th, yet its WHIP (1.39) was the seventh-worst in the majors. No team in the bottom 10 in bullpen WHIP, with the exception of the Red Sox, made the postseason.
Yet the Red Sox got production down the stretch from their bullpen when they needed it most. Here’s how it’s set up for 2022:
▪ Adam Ottavino
After signing a three-year deal worth $27 million with the Yankees prior to the 2019 season, Ottavino was traded to the Red Sox after two seasons in New York. He tossed 62 innings and posted a 4.21 ERA in 2021, working in the back part of the bullpen and putting together an up-and-down year.
Ottavino registered a 1.452 WHIP, aided by a 12.7 percent walk rate. His strikeout rate (25.7) was his worst since 2013.
Ottavino will be 36 at the end of this month and probably won’t attract another big-money deal. The Red Sox could make a run at him, despite the inconsistencies in 2021, and he could still be a solid arm.
▪ Hansel Robles
The 31-year-old righthander was a head-scratcher for some Red Sox fans when the club acquired him at the trade deadline. He had a 4.91 ERA in 45 games for the Twins this year, but he turned it around with the Red Sox, posting a 3.60 ERA in 25 games while striking out 33.
He will have suitors, given his stuff and age.
▪ Garrett Richards
The righthander’s season changed for the better when the Red Sox moved him to the bullpen. In 26⅓ innings as a reliever, Richards had a 3.42 ERA, striking out 28.
Richards has a $10 million team option for 2022, which is a hefty amount to pay a reliever. If the Sox decline the option, they could re-sign him at a lower price and benefit from having an effective bullpen arm who can go multiple innings.
▪ Ryan Brasier
The 34-year-old righthander had a trying 2021. He missed a chunk of the season after suffering a calf strain in spring training. Then he was hit with a comebacker during live batting practice, pushing back his timeline further.
Brasier pitched just 12 innings, but the Red Sox should be encouraged, judging by his 1.50 ERA. With 2021 behind him, Brasier should be a key piece of the bullpen next season.
▪ Matt Barnes
The Red Sox know it’s important that they figure out Barnes. It was a tale of two halves for the righthander. He was an All-Star for the first time, posting a 2.61 ERA in 38 games, striking out 63 batters. But in the second half of the year, Barnes lost it, registering a 6.48 ERA in 16⅔ innings. Thus, he was left off the American League Championship Series roster.
After being arguably the league’s best closer in the first half, Barnes turned into a nonfactor. The righthander signed an extension just before the All-Star break that will pay him just over $16 million. He’s a huge part of what the Red Sox want to achieve, making it imperative that he gets back on track.
▪ Hirokazu Sawamura
In his first year in the majors after spending much of his career in Japan, Sawamura posted a quality 3.06 ERA in 53 innings. He can lose his command at times. He walked 32 batters, leading to his 13.7 percent walk rate and 1.453 WHIP.
Nevertheless, the year in its totality was a quality one for Sawamura, who is signed at least through next season, with a team option for the third year.
▪ Josh Taylor
The lefty specialist was a crucial piece for the Red Sox in 2021. Lefthanded hitters batted just .146 against him while righthanders hit a whopping .327. He went 26 appearances without giving up a run. That’s tough to do, and the Sox aren’t expecting that version of Taylor. What they do want is consistency, something he’s provided for much of the last three seasons.
▪ Garrett Whitlock
He had a 1.96 ERA in 2021, fulfilling a number of roles in the bullpen. Time will tell whether the Sox see him as a starter or reliever.
▪ Tanner Houck
The 25-year-old righty was called up as a starter but was moved to the bullpen. As with Whitlock, the Sox haven’t said whether Houck will pitch out of the bullpen or as a starter. Nevertheless, you can expect him to contribute.
▪ Darwinzon Hernandez
The lefty, who will turn 25 next month, has a huge arm but can be erratic. He walked 30 batters in just 40 innings. But Hernandez also struck out 54 batters and put up a 3.38 ERA. There could be more upside on the horizon.
Who else could contribute?
▪ Eduard Bazardo
There was a lot of talk surrounding Bazardo heading into the season. But a lat strain cost him most of the year. If healthy, he could contribute.
▪ Connor Seabold
The Red Sox called on Seabold as they tried to navigate their COVID-19 outbreak toward the end of the season. He made his big league debut in a start during the White Sox series in September. He allowed two runs in three innings.
The Red Sox still view Seabold as a starting option, but his future might be in the bullpen, which would make him a candidate for 2022.
Free agent possibilities
▪ Kenley Jansen
Jansen’s 12-year tenure with the Dodgers came to a close this season, and it was one of his better ones. In 69 innings, he compiled a 2.22 ERA, striking out 86.
▪ Craig Kimbrel
A reunion? Or maybe not. After putting up an 0.49 ERA with the Cubs, Kimbrel went to the South Side of Chicago and registered a 5.09 ERA with the White Sox. He will likely cost too much, but if you’re the Red Sox, you almost have to do your due diligence.
▪ Trevor Rosenthal
He missed much of 2021 with a torn labrum in his hip. If healthy, he could be a solid acquisition.
▪ Other names: Brad Hand, Collin McHugh, Jake Diekman (if his $4 million team option with Oakland isn’t picked up).
Primary 2021 relievers: RHP Matt Barnes, RHP Garrett Whitlock, RHP Adam Ottavino, RHP Hansel Robles, RHP Hirokazu Sawamura, LHP Darwinzon Hernandez, LHP Josh Taylor.
Projected 2022 relievers: Barnes, Whitlock, Sawamura, Hernandez, Taylor.
Major league depth: RHP Eduard Bazardo, RHP Connor Seabold, RHP Phillips Valdez.
Prospects to watch: RHP Brayan Bello, LHP Jay Groome, LHP Chris Murphy.