BALTIMORE — The Red Sox have used 19 relief pitchers this season if you don’t count infielder Eduardo Nunez, who pitched an inning against Arizona on April 5.
That number will soon increase with Nate Eovaldi set to come off the injured list on Saturday.
There’s also a good chance the Sox will see what 23-year-old righthander Tanner Houck can do at some point soon. The former first-round pick switched to the bullpen earlier this month and was promoted to Triple A after two appearances.
It’s up to the Sox to determine which seven or eight of those relievers they can trust the final months of the season. The bullpen they had at Camden Yards on Friday night was a decent place to start.
The Sox have used more set roles since the All-Star break, and that has worked well for Matt Barnes, Josh Taylor and Brandon Workman in particular.
With the exception of one extra-inning game, Barnes has pitched in either the seventh or eighth inning this month and been dominant.
Taylor, a 29-year-old lefthander, has become a solid pick for the sixth inning.
Taylor was the player to be named later when the Sox traded Deven Marrero to the Diamondbacks last season. The Sox are his third organization and this season has been his first shot at the majors.
Taylor went into the weekend having allowed one run over eight innings this month. He struck out eight with one walk in those games.
“He’s showing us something,” manager Alex Cora said.
Cora doesn’t plan to name a closer, but Workman has essentially taken that spot. He had saves on Monday and Wednesday this week.
“It feels like it’s been structured lately,” Cora said. “Using Work closing games, the other day [Wednesday] was a perfect example against the Dodgers. It was going to be [Barnes] down two, down one. We tied the game and went to Work. He’s been that good.”
Beyond that, it gets thin. Big lefty Darwinzon Hernandez, who has 15 strikeouts in 7⅓ innings this season, offers hope. But he is a 22-year-old rookie yet to pass any big tests.
Eovaldi should be an instant upgrade. Almost any capable starter with a good fastball should be a good — if not great — reliever. Eovaldi has little regular season experience in relief, but showed what he could do in the role in the playoffs last year.
The Sox aren’t committing to Eovaldi being the closer, only that he’ll be used in high-leverage spots.
“That’s the most important thing, that you don’t have to go to the same guys when you have a lead,” Cora said. “You can have one more option.”
There are health concerns, too. Eovaldi was slow to come back from arthroscopic elbow surgery in April and won’t be used in consecutive games right away.
“We’ve got to be smart with him,” Cora said.
There’s also the possibility the Sox could need Eovaldi as a starter if Andrew Cashner can’t hold down a rotation spot.
“Let’s wait and see how it goes,” Cora said. “First things first, let’s go one inning at a time.”
If the Sox get to the postseason, a bullpen built around Eovaldi, Barnes, Hernandez, Taylor, and Workman has promise. Perhaps Brian Johnson could mix in as a long reliever. Maybe Houck steps up or Ryan Brasier has a revival after being demoted to the minors.
The Red Sox used all of their starters as relievers at various points of the postseason last year. But they were able to do that by giving all of them extra days off in September thanks to a commanding lead in the division.
They are unlikely to have that luxury this time around. It’s likely the Sox will have to grind all 162 games to either make the playoffs or host the wild-card game.
Of course, the other solution would be to trade for a reliable reliever instead of throwing darts at the roster. Dave Dombrowski hasn’t ruled that out and has his evaluators on the road. Detroit’s Shane Greene is one they’re watching.
But at least with Eovaldi returning to the roster, the Sox have another solution to what has been their biggest problem this season.
“It helps everything,” Cora said.