Second in a series.
It wasn’t hard to connect the dots. The Red Sox let Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly leave in free agency and didn’t sign anyone to replace them, their lone addition being a trade for Colten Brewer. The team’s 31 blown saves — second most in the majors — thus struck many as the inevitable byproduct of bullpen neglect.
But was the team’s reluctance to move aggressively in the free-agent relief market truly a mistake? The question hovers as one that can and should impact how the team approaches its relief corps for 2020.
Rewind. What happened to the free-agent relievers who were available last winter?
There were 20 free-agent relievers (excluding either lefty specialists such as Oliver Perez or swingmen such as Jesse Chavez) who signed guaranteed big league deals averaging roughly two years and $14 million. Those 20 pitchers averaged about 45 innings with a 4.34 ERA, 10.0 strikeouts, and 4.4 walks per nine innings.
Would such a yield have upgraded the Red Sox bullpen? To answer that question, it’s worth noting that Heath Hembree and Ryan Brasier combined to average just under 48 innings with a 4.44 ERA along with 10.1 strikeouts and 3.7 walks per nine innings.
So where does that leave the Red Sox? Probably at least somewhat leery of major free-agent investments in relievers — though it’s worth noting that the Rays (when new Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom was still in Tampa Bay) made a run at signing Kimbrel before he went to Chicago, so no path can be ruled out. Still, the Rays did most of their bullpen assembly finding buy-low opportunities via the trade market.
Most members of the Red Sox front office saw the makings of a strong late-innings group by the end of 2019 – even while acknowledging that early-season reliever struggles (compounded by the unexpectedly low innings totals of the team’s starters) contributed to the team’s first-half struggles.
Brandon Workman (10-1, 1.88 ERA, 16 saves, 13.1 strikeouts per 9 innings, 5.7 walks per 9) – whom the Sox nearly released before the end of spring training over concerns about his velocity – held hitters to a mind-blowing .123 average, .166 slugging mark, and .433 OPS while pitching in 73 games. He ranked among the best relievers in the game.
Matt Barnes (5-4, 3.78 ERA, 4 saves) had 26 holds (tied for 10th most in MLB) but also eight blown saves (tied for 2nd most), alternating brilliance with struggle, though his numbers were skewed in part by a June faceplant during which he was overused (15 appearances). He allowed 14 earned runs in 13 innings that month (9.69 ERA), and 13 in 51⅓ innings (2.28 ERA) for the rest of the year. He continues to possess elite stuff; his 38.6 percent strikeout rate ranked ninth among big league relievers, explaining why he was a popular subject of trade inquiries at the deadline.
The Red Sox viewed the emergence of Marcus Walden (9-2, 3.81 ERA, 8.8 strikeouts and 3.7 walks per 9 innings) and young lefties Josh Taylor (3.04 ERA, 11.8 strikeouts and 3.0 walks per 9) and Darwinzon Hernandez (4.45 ERA, 16.9 strikeouts and 7.7 walks per 9) as a considerable player development success. Taylor and Hernandez especially showed late-innings wipeout potential.
Hembree (3.86 ERA, 10.4 strikeouts and 4.1 walks per 9) was dominant for a stretch in May and June before elbow issues limited him down the stretch. Still, he continues to look like a solid middle-innings option who sometimes goes on the sort of roll to become a late-innings factor.
Brasier underscored the year-to-year volatility of reliever performances, proving unable to maintain the same magic that made him a late-innings weapon in the 2018 championship run. Brewer never demonstrated the control or command to unlock the full potential of his arsenal.
The Sox believe they have a number of options who offer the makings of a strong bullpen. Still, they’ll look to add depth, as was the case with the waiver claim of lefty Josh Osich from the White Sox – a veteran who showed considerable promise while ditching a straight four-seamer in September and increasing his slider/changeup usage.
Other depth options on the 40-man roster underwhelmed in 2019. Travis Lakins didn’t miss bats (6.9 strikeouts per nine innings), though his cutter limited hard contact. Among pitchers who shuttled between Boston and Pawtucket in the late-season, he is viewed as having the best shot of emerging as a future middle-innings option.
Mike Shawaryn got strikeouts (12.8 per 9 innings) but gave up five homers in just 20⅓ innings. Both he and sidearmer Trevor Kelley allowed more than a run per inning. Lefty Bobby Poyner likewise had a tough season (6.94 ERA) when bumped up to Boston.
Lefty Brian Johnson and righties Hector Velazquez, Ryan Weber, Josh Smith all received spot start opportunities while also spending time as long men. Smith is now a free agent, and while Johnson, Velazquez, and Weber all remain on the 40-man roster, none is assured of a big league role.
Andrew Cashner and Jhoulys Chacin were mid-year acquisitions who are now free agents. Cashner did show interesting bullpen potential once moved out of the rotation, as his homer-prone tendencies as a Red Sox starter did not carry into relief.
The Red Sox will have some bullpen options with late-innings potential in their system. Righthander Tanner Houck likely will open 2020 in the rotation, but his two-seam fastball and slider could be strong bullpen attributes. Houck, a 2017 first-rounder, spent time as both a starter and reliever in 2019. Righthander Bryan Mata is the Red Sox’ best upper-levels starting pitching prospect in several years, but his mid- to upper-90s two-seam fastball and slider/cutter likewise create the possibility of breaking into the big leagues as a reliever in 2020.
Righthander Durbin Feltman, a 2018 third-round pick, struggled badly in his first full pro season, spending all of it in Double-A Portland rather than making his anticipated leap through the upper levels of the minors, but if he can recapture his college form, he could emerge as a depth factor. Righty Eduard Bazardo might command more attention if he was as big as his listed height of six feet. He features a tremendous curveball, which he complements with a slider and a fastball that has topped out at 95 mph. It will be interesting to see if the Sox add him to the 40-man roster, and if not, if another team tabs him in the Rule 5 draft.
Lefty Yoan Aybar, just two seasons into his conversion from the outfield, remains raw, but his high-90s fastball with flashes of a swing-and-miss slider suggest a future big leaguer, though perhaps not in 2020.
RED SOX BULLPEN OUTLOOK
Primary 2019 relievers: RHP Brandon Workman, RHP Matt Barnes, RHP Marcus Walden, RHP Ryan Brasier, RHP Colten Brewer, LHP Josh Taylor, RHP Heath Hembree, LHP Darwinzon Hernandez
Expected 2020 relievers: See above.
Major league depth: RHP Trevor Kelley, RHP Travis Lakins, LHP Josh Osich, LHP Bobby Poyner, RHP Mike Shawaryn, RHP Hector Velazquez.
Prospects to watch: RHP Tanner Houck, LHP Yoan Aybar, RHP Eduard Bazardo, RHP Durbin Feltman, RHP Bryan Mata