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PETER ABRAHAM | AROUND THE HORN

Red Sox have built up depth in bullpen

Craig Kimbrel will return as the closer after an uneven first season in Boston.Elise Amendola/AP/File

(Eighth in a series examining the Red Sox roster for 2017.)

The Red Sox open the season on April 3 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the days leading up to that game, many stories will focus on which pitchers are selected for the bullpen.

It will be largely a waste of time and effort.

More than any other segment of the team, the bullpen is almost endlessly pliable. The Red Sox used an average of 19.7 relievers in the last three seasons that they won the World Series.

In 2013, for example, Joel Hanrahan was the closer when the season started. Andrew Bailey, Andrew Miller, Alfredo Aceves, and Clayton Mortensen also were on the Opening Day roster.

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None of those players was on the playoff roster six months later. Hanrahan, Bailey, and Miller ended up the disabled list, Aceves was demoted, and Mortensen was traded.

So keep an open mind when evaluating a bullpen, because what you see in March is sure to change.

But as the bullpen stands today, the Red Sox have depth and talent and considerably more velocity given the affection president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has for power arms.

Craig Kimbrel returns as the closer after an uneven first season in Boston.

Opponents hit only .152 against Kimbrel and he converted 31 of 33 save chances. But Kimbrel had a 5.12 earned run average in 22 nonsave chances. The righthander allowed two or more earned runs in five games and three times came into games and did not record an out.

Kimbrel had a 1.43 ERA and 0.90 WHIP with the Atlanta Braves from 2010-14 and averaged 14.8 strikeouts per nine innings. He has had a 2.96 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in the two years since and averaged 13.6 strikeouts per nine innings.

On Dec. 6, the Red Sox traded Travis Shaw and three prospects to Milwaukee to get setup man Tyler Thornburg.

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The 28-year-old was dominant last season. He allowed 16 earned runs on 38 hits over 67 innings while striking out 90. Because Thornburg handles lefthanded batters well, the Sox see him handling the eighth inning and filling in as closer when needed.

Matt Barnes’s first full season as a reliever was a successful one. He led the team with 62 appearances and had 71 strikeouts in 66⅔ innings. He profiles as the seventh-inning man.

Barnes does have minor league options and could get caught in a numbers game early on.

Heath Hembree needs to be used correctly to be successful. Righthanded batters had a .591 OPS against him last season. Lefties had an .890 OPS. Ideally, he is a specialist and would split an inning with one of the lefties.

Lefthander Fernando Abad is the opposite of Hembree. Lefties had a .459 OPS against him and righthanders a .789 OPS. Yet after the Red Sox acquired him, Abad faced 35 righthanders and 25 lefthanders. Abad had a 6.39 ERA as a result and wasn’t on the postseason roster. Perhaps this season he’ll be a lefthanded specialist. If not, there’s little point to having him around.

In Robbie Ross Jr., the Sox have a do-it-all reliever. The lefty went more than one inning 16 times and on nine occasions faced just one or two batters. Ross allowed two home runs over 55⅓ innings.

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Joe Kelly has a 4.70 ERA and 1.45 WHIP since the Red Sox acquired him from the St. Louis Cardinals in 2014. He also has been on the disabled list twice and three times has been demoted to Triple A Pawtucket.

But Kelly flashes just enough ability to create the idea that he has value. He pitched well in 11 September relief appearances, giving up one run and striking out 20 over 14 innings. Whether that translates into success in higher-leverage situations remains to be seen. Until proven otherwise, Kelly is more style than substance.

The Sox will have ample depth at Pawtucket to start the season.

Lefty Robby Scott pitched well in a September call-up and challenged for a spot on the playoff roster. He could get squeezed out of Opening Day because he has options.

Carson Smith, obtained in a trade before last season, appeared in only three games before undergoing Tommy John surgery. He was impressive for Seattle in 2015 and a return to form would be a huge lift for the Sox. Look for Smith as a possibility in May or June.

Brandon Workman has not pitched in the majors since 2014 because of Tommy John surgery. When last healthy, in 2013, Workman was a significant contributor out of the bullpen during the postseason.

Righthander Noe Ramirez has appeared in 31 games the last two seasons and has shown himself willing to challenge hitters.

Even if the Red Sox trade one of their starters before spring training, which seems likely, they will still have six starters competing for five spots.

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The pitcher left out of the rotation is likely to land in the bullpen. That could be Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez, or Steven Wright.

Pomeranz has extensive experience as a reliever and could be valuable in that role. Wright has 15 games of major league relief experience.

The Sox could turn to one of their Triple A starters for relief help. Lefthanders Roenis Elias, Brian Johnson, and Henry Owens all have major league experience. Given the rotation depth, any future they have with the Sox could be in the bullpen.

Elias was little factor last season, getting in three games and pitching poorly. But he was a productive pitcher for the Seattle Mariners from 2014-15, posting a 3.97 ERA in 51 games.

The Red Sox have some prospects who could get the call during the season.

Righthander Kyle Martin, a ninth-round draft pick in 2013, has made steady progress through the minors and last season appeared in 36 games for Pawtucket. He then pitched well in the Arizona Fall League.

Lefthander Luis Ysla was added to the 40-man roster in November. The 24-year-old was with Double A Portland for most of last season.

Add it all up and the Sox have 19-20 relief candidates. History suggests all will get a chance at some point. With relievers, the real winners are those still around in September.

Red Sox bullpen outlook

Primary 2016 relievers: RHP Craig Kimbrel, RHP Matt Barnes, LHP Robbie Ross Jr., RHP Junichi Tazawa, RHP Koji Uehara, RHP Heath Hembree.

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Expected 2017 relievers: Kimbrel, RHP Tyler Thornburg, RHP Joe Kelly, Barnes, Ross, Hembree, LHP Fernando Abad.

Major league depth: RHP Noe Ramirez, RHP Carson Smith, LHP Robby Scott, RHP Brandon Workman.

Prospects to watch: LHP Jalen Beeks, RHP Kyle Martin, LHP Edgar Olmos, RHP Chandler Shepherd, LHP Luis Ysla.


Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.