By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
For all of the wins and exciting moments the Boston Red Sox pile up between now and the beginning of October, the team will continue to be dogged by questions borne out of their recent postseason performance. It’s not unfair, given the unceremonious nature by which the two-time AL East champs have been sent packing the last two years. But it's frustrating to some, particularly when this year’s model has submitted so much evidence it has it.
For one, it’s difficult to get comfortable with the starting rotation. Chris Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello are the top guys, but for their combined income and regular season plaudits, we hesitate to set high expectations for October, especially now that Sale’s shoulder appears to be an issue. Rare is the season where injuries don’t play a factor. The 2004 Boston starting five making 157 of 162 scheduled starts, for instance, was a clear outlier - but the concerns were present before Sale got hurt.
Recent postseason history reveals a number of managers sending starters to the showers in favor of riding out the middle innings with a bevy of relievers. Boston skipper Alex Cora once toiled for trigger-happy Terry Francona and spent last year with a champion Astros team headed by similarly minded A.J. Hinch. The performances of the Cleveland and Houston relief corps, replete with converted starters, largely supported the decisions of their managers.
But who can Cora turn to in a tight situation, to carefully massage the in-between innings before turning the game over to Craig Kimbrel, a man paid to blow people away in the ninth? Who bridges the gap?
Recognizing the dearth of trusted hands out beyond right field fence in recent years, Dave Dombrowski made moves for Brad Ziegler and Addison Reed in each of the the last two seasons. This year? Nothing. And it doesn’t appear that anything is in the works.
The surging A’s recently picked at the carcass of the Twins, adding 41-year old Fernando Rodney. Even if Dombrowski had the appetite for a similar move, would the player fall all the way to the Sox at the bottom of the waiver pecking order? Would he be any good? There have been multiple instances (Scott Sauerbeck, Eric Gagne, Fernando Abad) where the Sox added a flourishing bullpen arm in late summer, only for the leaves to wilt right on the tree before first frost.
The Red Sox appear to be rolling with what they’ve got.
Earlier in the season, it looked like Cora trusted Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes in the eighth. We’ll get to Barnes later. Cora’s confidence in Kelly has eroded, and with good reason. He worked the eighth inning 28 times before the All-Star break and has appeared there just twice since. He’s been a particular mess since the beginning of June, posting a 6.75 ERA over 25.1 innings with nearly as many walks as strikeouts. There are peaks, even lengthy scoreless streaks for Kelly, but the valleys are loaded with smog.
How about Heath Hembree? Did you know he has a 3.32 ERA across parts of five seasons in Boston? He was impressive in a 2-1 win in Philadelphia last week and kept the score close Sunday afternoon against the Rays. He’s never had a real chance in the eighth inning. But as Tony Massarotti noted, his hefty walk rate makes it hard to give him one. Plus, he has a 6.16 ERA in 21 career appearances against the Yankees, a potential postseason opponent.
Hector Velazquez and Brian Johnson have been great swinging back and forth between the bullpen and starting rotation, and both are currently needed as part of the latter. Neither has pitched in the eighth inning of a close game all year.
Drew Pomeranz was a mess in his most recent appearance, and looks nothing like the 17-game winner from last year or the lefty who found success in a relief role previously in his career. He appears destined for the mop-up bucket, alongside Velazquez and Johnson.
Brandon Workman has experience in the postseason - even as a hitter - but he has options and has spent the summer on the shuttle from Boston to Pawtucket. That makes it difficult to get into a groove with the big club, but perhaps Workman can see a more predictable workload down the stretch.
Then, there’s Ryan Brasier. The Japan Central League retread his allowed just nine hits, two earned runs and boasts a near 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio across 18 innings of work. He’s accumulated holds in each of his last three appearances and worked a clean eighth Saturday against the Rays. With less than six weeks left in the season, I’d like to see more opportunities for Brasier.
I’d also love it if Tyler Thornburg was the same guy who was lights-out for the Brewers in 2016, but his injury history makes that seem like years ago. Despite a few bumps in the road, Thornburg has been decent since his return in early July. If he can keep guys off the bases and flash some strikeout ability, he’s another candidate.
We’ve danced around Barnes. He has the numbers and has been even better than Kimbrel by some measures. It’s been the best year of his career by far, and maybe our observation of his slow progression to this point is what gives us pause about giving him our full endorsement. The Yankees have scored on him four times across four appearances totaling 3 1/3 innings, and he’s had a few hiccups since his transition to an eighth inning role in mid-July. But Barnes appears to be the leader in the clubhouse.
If you've visited this space before, you know I love the Wayback Machine. Let's go back to 2003, when the closer-by-committee experiment failed and it took half the season to sort through the clutter. Byung-Hyun Kim was acquired as a starter, eventually shifted to the bullpen, then was pulled in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the ALDS against the A’s. With Kim feuding with Boston fans and his shoulder hurting, the bullpen waters were murky by the time the Sox returned to Fenway in an 0-2 hole.
Luckily for the Sox, Alan Embree, Mike Timlin and Scott Williamson teamed up to allow a single earned run over 24 1/3 innings that postseason.
Boston also used Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield and Bronson Arroyo out of then 'pen that fall, a tactic Cora may employ out of necessity. Eduardo Rodriguez could nudge his way back into the picture. Same with Steven Wright and his fluttering knuckleball. Nathan Eovaldi seems to have been acquired for such a role. And there's always the tantalizing playoff resume of David Price while deployed as a reliever.
Either way, Cora may be playing a chess match with checker pieces come October. Just like the 2003 team, he has an elite offense and (hopefully) a Cy Young-caliber ace at his disposal. But when it comes to the bullpen, can he even muster a "Big 3" on par with Embree, Timlin and Williamson?
As the Red Sox charge past the 100-win marker, it's OK to have fun. They're a great team. But it's also responsible to keep an eye tuned to Barnes, Brasier, Thornburg, or any of the other options the Sox might use in a key situation come October.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.