LAKELAND, Fla. — In 2013, Brandon Workman wasn’t invited to big league camp in spring training. He ended up being one of the primary Red Sox setup men in front of Koji Uehara en route to a championship. A year ago, Ryan Brasier wasn’t invited to big league camp in spring training. He emerged as one of the key late-innings weapons for the Red Sox in their run to a title.
Bullpen blueprints alter over the course of the season, and in the case of the 2019 Red Sox, that notion seems to be almost by design. With both Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly gone, the Sox are working toward a season-opening bullpen setup that seems to come with a “subject to change” caveat.
And so, interest in the Red Sox bullpen this spring takes two forms, with one eye on those looking to break camp with the team, and another on the pitchers who have a chance to contribute later in the season. And on Thursday, the Red Sox got a first Grapefruit League glimpse at one of the pitchers who falls into the latter camp.
Righthander Durbin Feltman, a dominant college closer for TCU whom the Red Sox drafted in the third round last June, arrived in pro ball with a scouting reputation that preceded him. The 6-foot righthander features a mid- to upper-90s fastball and a vicious breaking ball (thrown with the velocity of a slider and the downward bite of a curveball) that suggested, in the eyes of some, a potential fast-track to the big leagues.
Feltman wasn’t, and isn’t, bashful about such suggestions.
“I want to make it to the big leagues as fast as possible,” Feltman said Thursday, prior to throwing a scoreless ninth inning with two strikeouts and a walk against the Tigers in a 4-4 tie. “I wanted to make it last year, and I want to make it this year. I definitely don’t shy away from that. That’s my expectation, to make it as fast as I can.”
A day like Thursday can help. The righthander struck out two batters with big league experience — Hector Sanchez looking at a 94 m.p.h. fastball, Harold Castro swinging on an 83 m.p.h. slider that nearly bounced off the lefthanded hitter’s shoes — before walking Gordon Beckham.
Feltman was unfazed by the free pass. Mindful that Beckham might steal, he varied his hold times and, when Beckham took off too early, caught him stealing to end the game.
“That was awesome,” Feltman said. “Coming in in the ninth inning, that’s always cool, especially on the big league side. That was quite the experience. . . . It was fun to just see how my stuff plays and get used to the smaller strike zone, stuff like that. It was a great experience.”
The outing provided Alex Cora with his second look at Feltman. The Red Sox manager also caught an inning from the righthander during Monday’s off day, when he took stock of a mid-90s fastball with ride up in the strike zone and that nasty, diving slider that plays off the fastball to create the top-to-bottom vertical pitching attack that is at the heart of how the Red Sox like to attack opposing hitters.
That said, Cora also tried to tap the brakes on the expectations surrounding the 21-year-old.
“I still remember people thought he was going to be the savior last year when he got drafted,” chuckled Cora. “It’s not that easy.”
The Red Sox shared that outlook in choosing to move deliberately in all senses of the word with Feltman last year. Though his closer-in-the-making stuff could have played in the upper levels, the team didn’t have him advance past High A Salem, mindful that an assignment to Double A Portland or Triple A Pawtucket could create a groundswell of expectations for a call-up that could prove detrimental to development.
Cora remains mindful of a cautionary tale he experienced with the 2005 Red Sox. That year, the Sox used a first-round pick on college reliever Craig Hansen, rushed him to the big leagues that September, then saw Hansen struggle and never emerge as the player he was supposed to be.
“You’ve got to be very careful. This is still the big leagues,” said Cora. “My brother [Pirates third base coach Joey Cora], he puts it in a very particular way. It’s A ball, Double A, Triple A, [but] it’s not 4 A, it’s MLB. There’s a difference. There’s a big jump. There’s a period of adjustment.”
There are plenty of examples of pitchers who raced to the big leagues with little to no grounding in the minors and whose careers ended up flaming out quickly. Of course, there are also counter-examples of pitchers such as Huston Street and Francisco Rodriguez who flew through the minors to emerge as late-innings standouts.
“Organizations, they make decisions, not only on stuff and talent but makeup and what they can handle, how are they going to bounce back from bad outings,” said Cora. “All that stuff comes into play when you make decisions like that.”
So, too, will the sense of an unsettled bullpen — particularly if the Red Sox cannot identify a consistently reliable passage through the late innings to start the season. While Feltman will open the year in the upper minors, he certainly has a chance to make a case through his performance and stuff that he doesn’t end there. As much as Feltman wants to define his timetable to the big leagues, he prefers to focus on what he can influence most directly.
“I just try to block it all out,” said Feltman. “My motto for pro ball, and even in college, was, ‘Be where your feet are, be in the present moment, and do the best that you can there.’ ”
In all likelihood, Feltman will apply that mantra in Double A Portland for the start of the season — but it remains to be seen for how long that remains the case.