FORT MYERS, Fla. — It’s been clear for some time: Craig Kimbrel is not walking back through that ninth-inning door.
But who is? For the Red Sox, there might not be just one answer.
As the Red Sox contemplate how they’ll handle ninth-inning responsibilities in a post-Kimbrel world, the team seems increasingly open to the possibility of taking a flexible approach to the later stages of the game rather than making an unwavering commitment to one person for the last three outs.
Manager Alex Cora reiterated on Sunday morning that he has “a pretty good idea of what I want to do” with the ninth inning, but that the topic is one that is currently subject to organizational debate — a conversation driven less by how individual pitchers perform in spring training than by what the organization is willing to do with them. He opened the door to the possibility of using matchups to dictate the back end of the bullpen structure.
“We know who [the relievers] are. We know the stuff. It’s just about the plan. The plan will be out there on March 28th,” Cora said, referring to the Opening Day date against the Mariners. “It’s just a matter of, see what we’re going to do as an organization, what plan we’re going to do, how comfortable are we with a closer or mixing it up, or getting people out in certain situations? We still have a lot of days to see how we feel about it.”
Pitching coach Dana LeVangie understands the potential risks associated with a non-traditional approach to the closer role. He was the bullpen catcher for the Red Sox in 2003, when the plan to employ a bullpen based on matchups blew up almost immediately.
But, LeVangie said, “it’s a different time” than it was in 2003. The current Red Sox bullpen inventory features pitchers who are accustomed to entering games at different stages. Matt Barnes entered in the seventh inning 22 times in 2018, while making his entrance in the eighth in 26 games; outside of August, when he was pitching with an injured hip, he dominated in both, with strikeout numbers (14.0 per nine) that roughly mirrored Kimbrel.
“Sometimes the fifth inning is more important, but the ninth is the save,” said Barnes. “If I am in that [closer] role, let’s do it. If not, I’ll do everything I can to help this team win regardless. It’s kind of the way I’ve always approached it.”
Ryan Brasier came out of the bullpen 12 times in the seventh inning and 10 times in the eighth en route to a 1.60 ERA with 7.8 strikeouts and 1.9 walks per nine innings last year.
“I go into every inning,” said Brasier, “like I’ve got to close the game.”
The usage of Barnes and Brasier as well as that of other Red Sox relievers last year was governed more by specific batter/pitcher matchups than by the inning. Red Sox pitchers understand that the most critical moments aren’t necessarily defined by the inning.
The Sox wouldn’t be alone in reconsidering how their late-innings structure works. The 2018 Brewers used three different pitchers (Corey Knebel, Jeremy Jeffress, and Josh Hader) in a variety of late-inning roles, with each getting at least a dozen saves. Cubs manager Joe Maddon told reporters on Sunday he wouldn’t commit to one pitcher for the ninth because he doesn’t want to handcuff himself.
Against that backdrop, LeVangie outlined a scenario in which the team could “put two guys into that [closing] equation” — much as the team divided the seventh and eighth innings between Brasier and Barnes a year ago.
“As long as we’re not asking them to be a part of the equation from the fifth inning on, if they can know that they’re focused on two specific innings, it allows them a little more freedom in their thinking and preparation,” said LeVangie. “Depending on who’s available, if the matchups favor us best in the eighth inning with a specific guy and that’s the biggest part [of the game], then we’re willing to make that adjustment for maybe someone who’s gotten three or four saves in a row.
“If everyone is available, we’re always going to try to get that best person to face the heart of the order when it’s close and late,” LeVangie added. “We’re willing to make adjustments there.”
Of course, “willing to make adjustments” is not quite the same as saying that the Red Sox “will” make adjustments. Front office members and the coaching staff will continue conversations as spring progresses and account for personnel variables.
Brasier is still limited to throwing on flat ground as he works back from his infected pinky toe. Though Cora said he expects the righthander to be ready for the start of the season, his progression will affect how the Sox proceed. Barnes and Heath Hembree have yet to throw in games.
The team also faces different questions about usage. If the Sox feel that Tyler Thornburg or Brandon Workman would benefit from a clean, consistent inning, the best way to achieve that goal while preserving the flexibility of the bullpen might be to designate the ninth for one of those righthanders.
Certainly, it remains possible that the Red Sox could have a traditional closer to start the year. But at the least, after three years in which Kimbrel was the unquestioned option of first resort in the ninth, the Sox are at least open to different possibilities as they move toward 2019.