Which Red Sox relievers have the best chance of making the postseason roster?
NEW YORK — There are 15 pitchers on the Red Sox roster who can be classified as relievers for the purposes of the team that will be selected for the American League Division Series.
(Yes, the Red Sox have not yet clinched the AL East. But they have an 11½ game lead on the Yankees with 12 games to play. So let’s proceed, shall we?)
With Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Eduardo Rodriguez sure to make up the rotation for the first round, the Sox will have room for seven or eight relievers, depending on how many position players they take.
There are a number of factors that will go into their choices, starting with the opponent. The Sox, who are close to wrapping up the top seed, would play the winner of the wild-card game, which is likely to be between the Yankees and Athletics.
The Yankees are heavy with dangerous righthanded hitters. Oakland has a dangerous switch hitter in Jed Lowrie, who is weaker batting righthanded. Righthanded hitting Khris Davis, who has 43 homers and 115 RBIs, has actually hit righthanders better this season and over his career. But he has an .809 OPS against lefthanders, so it’s not as if it’s a glaring weakness.
So maybe an extra lefty sneaks on the roster against Oakland as opposed to New York.
One plate appearance can make all the difference in a playoff series, so the Sox will have their analysts and coaches dig deep into the numbers looking for even a minute edge.
Manager Alex Cora has said all season that he does not put much stock into sample sizes of six or seven at-bats. The Sox will instead look for weaknesses against certain pitches or locations and choose a pitcher who can best exploit those.
Starting on Tuesday afternoon, the Sox also have six games remaining against the Yankees. So if they do face the Yanks, recent performances could play into it.
So with all those variables in mind, here’s an analysis on where the relievers stand as the season winds down.
■ RHP Matt Barnes: He has not pitched since Sept. 3 because of inflammation in his left hip. That he allowed 10 runs over 10⅓ innings in his 11 prior appearance played into his break, too. But Barnes had a 2.25 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .501 OPS before that downturn. That earned a lot of trust. The rest should get him back to where he was.
■ RHP Ryan Brasier: A 31-year-old rookie who was not invited to major league spring training, Brasier is more than just a good story. He has put only 24 batters on base over 29⅓ innings and allowed one home run. A power pitcher who’s not afraid to throw a strike is a valuable commodity.
■ RHP Craig Kimbrel: This season has not been his best. But Kimbrel’s OK seasons are better than the great ones for most closers. Opponents are 1 for 31 with 15 strikeouts in his last 10 appearances. Walks (4.3 per nine innings) have been a season-long issue. But he’s one of the best in the business.
■ RHP Steven Wright: The knuckleballer has pitched seven scoreless innings in six appearances since coming off the disabled list on Sept. 1. Cora is clearly captivated by the possibilities. That Wright has put 11 men on base in those seven innings is a red flag, but his versatility is a benefit.
They’re in contention
■ RHP Nathan Eovaldi: He’s the odd man out in the rotation at this stage, but the Sox have mentioned Eovaldi as being a reliever in the postseason. But he needs to show something before the season ends. He has a 6.58 ERA and whopping 2.00 WHIP in his last seven games. Tuesday’s start against the Yankees is a big one for him.
■ RHP Heath Hembree: He was a lock a month ago, but his recent outings have been unimpressive, to a point where he’s essentially an average reliever. Cora likes his ability to strand inherited runners (35 of 44), but the Sox may feel they can do better.
■ LHP Brian Johnson: Sale and Rodriguez had long stays on the disabled list in the second half, so the Sox need a reliever who could go four innings in a pinch if something happens. Johnson can fill that role. That lefties have hit .227 against him also suggests he could be a specialist.
■ RHP Joe Kelly: A revelation in the spring, Kelly has been a summer disappointment. He has a 5.94 ERA since June 1, with 20 walks and three hit batters over 36⅓ innings. Kelly’s fastball is tantalizing, but is he trustworthy? Nothing lately suggests he is.
■ LHP Bobby Poyner: He’s interesting. Poyner’s changeup plays against righthanders, and there’s something about his fastball that lefties can’t pick up. Cora has been testing him in some high-leverage spots in the last week. But after making the team out of spring training, Poyner pitched four times in the majors in May, June, July, and August. Has he shown enough?
■ RHP Hector Velazquez: He’s done whatever has been asked, facing as many as 23 batters in a game and as few as one. In all, he’s sixth on the team in innings with 77 ⅔ . He also looks worn out, considering a 4.98 ERA since Aug. 9.
■ RHP Brandon Workman: Back in 2013 (“A lifetime ago,” he called it), Workman made the postseason roster and pitched in seven games. Now 30, he’s earning his way back. He has allowed one run on five hits over 9 ⅓ innings since Aug. 28. He’s not afraid to challenge hitters and has command of three pitches.
■ RHP William Cuevas: He was called just for September depth and has pitched in three games since. His best hope now is to get a World Series ring.
■ LHP Drew Pomeranz: A free agent after the season, Pomeranz has cost himself millions. He is 2-5 with a 6.17 ERA, and opponents have hit .298 with an .897 OPS. The Sox took him out of the rotation in August and tried him in relief. There were a few good moments, but he was hit hard in that role, too.
■ LHP Robby Scott: He dominated lefties (.121/.224/.303) in 57 major league appearances last season, then had surgery to clean up his elbow. That led to an uneven spring training, a demotion to Pawtucket, and only four major league appearances this season. He allowed six runs in those games and hit five lefty batters.
■ RHP Tyler Thornburg: As one opposing coach said last week: “It’s a shame. He used to be so good. But it’s not there.” Thornburg was an elite reliever for the Brewers in 2016, missed two seasons recovering from shoulder surgery after the Sox traded for him, and this year has an ERA of 5.63 in 25 games. Maybe he will regain what he had at some point, but it has not happened yet.