MIAMI — The obvious never seems to be the obvious to the Red Sox.
Who doesn’t think that Joe Kelly should be tried as the team’s closer in Koji Uehara’s absence? Kelly has closer velocity (97 miles per hour), closer stuff, and has struggled as a starter. He was a closer in college. His stuff gets worse a couple of times through the lineup.
The fact that the Red Sox don’t have another starting pitcher to plug into Kelly’s role is mind-boggling in and of itself. Go out and make a waiver deal for an older starter like Kyle Lohse or Aaron Harang and plug them into the fifth spot in the rotation for the rest of the season.
Allow yourself to take a look at what could be a legitimate solution at closer for the future and some salvation to a bad deal with the Cardinals in which you gave up John Lackey for Kelly and Allen Craig.
While anyone can fracture a wrist at any time, regardless of age, Uehara’s injury is a reminder that older closers break down.
The Red Sox really have not groomed another pitcher to be a closer. John Farrell made good on his promise to use Junichi Tazawa as his closer in tandem with Giants retread Jean Machi and A’s retread Ryan Cook.
Tazawa’s first chance resulted in a blown save Tuesday night. He entered the game with a 4-3 lead in the ninth when he allowed a run to send the game into extras in an eventual 5-4 Marlins win in 10 innings.
Tazawa just hung his head in disgust in the dugout after the inning, knowing he had blown his golden opportunity.
We’re guessing the Red Sox will add a reliever or two with closing experience in the offseason as insurance in case Uehara breaks down, and Machi and Cook may never wear a Red Sox uniform after this season.
Machi, who pitched a scoreless eighth after putting two runners on base, was designated for assignment by the Giants, who really had no place for him in their bullpen. He had been outpitched by George Kontos, and Hunter Strickland had emerged as a better piece in the bullpen, making Machi expendable.
“He was a six-year free agent that we signed back to back years,” said Giants general manager Bobby Evans. “He eventually made it to the major league level. He ran out of options but made our club out of camp last year and was a solid go-to guy for us. His stuff slipped a little bit this year and Kontos outpitched him and Strickland emerged as ready for consistent opportunity.”
Machi, with a Pablo Sandoval body-type, looks to be Boston’s big restoration project.
Cook had been a closer for the A’s until he got hurt, saving 12 games in 2012. He’s still only 28 years old. If he could regain his 2012 form, the Red Sox would have themselves a real find.
Relievers have been known to disappear and then reinvent themselves. No harm, no foul in Cook’s case.
The Red Sox tried to make Matt Barnes a reliever out of spring training and it didn’t work out. Barnes was hit hard every time he came up to the majors and wound up with a 5.64 ERA. He’s still in Pawtucket and may return in September. He even started a game for the hapless Pawtucket team last week. There is also some hope for reliever Pat Light in Pawtucket.
The Red Sox bullpen, other than Tazawa and Uehara, has been a disaster this season, ranking 23d of 30 teams with a 4.02 ERA. Farrell acknowledged that much, and said about the rest of the pen, “Other than that, we’ve been far too inconsistent to say that we don’t need to improve. We need to improve pitching across the board to fortify both bullpen and rotation on top of who’s here.”
Farrell has no chicken-and-egg theory when it comes to his pitching. Did the team’s 28th-ranked starting rotation (4.82 ERA) force the bullpen to pitch far too many innings (360⅔ innings, sixth most in baseball) and thus, break down?
Or were there simply flaws in the bullpen to start with?
“It’s one of the factors,” Farrell said about the poor starting pitching creating a ripple effect. “Anytime you have guys coming to the mound too frequently that will have an effect. So there’s a number of ways to address that. One, the most simple way, and the most expensive way, is to get more innings out of your starters. The other way is rotating guys from Pawtucket to here to give you flexibility and freshness.”
With Uehara out, there’s a chance to find a possible replacement or someone to depend on. Kelly pitched better as a starter his last outing, pitching “backwards” as one scout put it, leading more with off-speed stuff than his fastball.
Like any pitcher, they would prefer to start rather than relieve because the paycheck normally has more zeroes. But top relievers also make good money. And Kelly, still 27, would have a chance to establish himself as a top guy.
While there are no guarantees Kelly would succeed, now is the time to find out. The Red Sox already know they need a top-of-the-rotation starter for 2016 which means someone would have to depart the rotation if you’ve got to pick from Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Eduardo Rodriguez, Steven Wright, Henry Owens, and Brian Johnson.
If Kelly can do it, then you enter the 2016 season with Uehara, Tazawa, and Kelly as the final three in the bullpen and you just have to fill in the rest.
So much so, that Kelly remains a starter.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.