Boston Red Sox move Matt Barnes back to starting role in Pawtucket


Matt Barnes is changing roles again.

The 25-year old right-hander has flip-flopped between being a starter and relief pitcher over the past two seasons so many times that it is now mystery what the Boston Red Sox envision him as long-term.

Barnes entered spring training as a starter, but was converted to a reliever late in camp, only to begin the season in the rotation for Triple-A Pawtucket. The Red Sox called him up to the big leagues late in April to work out of the bullpen, where he made 21 appearances before being optioned back to Pawtucket last month. While the plan was initially to keep him as a reliever to develop him as a power arm out of the bullpen, the Red Sox are changing course again.

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Barnes returned to the rotation in Pawtucket Wednesday night against the Syracuse Chiefs. He lasted only 3.1 innings, surrendering 4 runs on 5 hits. He walked 3 and struck out two. The PawSox couldn’t have expected him to last long given that he hadn’t been stretched out as a starter since April, but the results were disappointing nonetheless.

The same can be said for Barnes’ track record as a starter this season. He is 0-1 with a 5.87 ERA over 4 starts with Pawtucket this season. While he has struck out 15 batters in 15.1 innings, he has also walked 9 and opposing batters are hitting .279 against him in those starts.

The results have been better as a reliever. Not great, but certainly better. Barnes owns a 3.24 ERA in 16.2 innings of relief at the Triple-A level this season, striking out 19 and holding opposing batters to a .200 average. That success hasn’t carried over to the majors, where he has a career 5.17 ERA in 31.1 innings over the past two seasons in Boston, but it’s clear that he can be best utilized as a reliever.

Barnes essentially only throws three pitches: He relies heavily on a fastball that sits in the mid-90’s and tops out at around 97 MPH. He mixes in a cutter, which has been his best strikeout pitch during his brief time in the majors this season, generating a 33.3 K% and holding opposing hitters to a .604 OPS. He also possesses a rarely used change-up, which has been far less effective, yet more successful than his predictable fastball has been. This limited arsenal could make him a dangerous bullpen weapon if he manages to harness it in shorter stints out of the bullpen, but it’s not enough to get by when he has to face hitters a second and third time through the order as a starter.

The problem is that a lack of rotation depth at the Triple-A level has forced the Red Sox to transition Barnes back to being a starter again, at least for now. The promotions of Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens to the majors, along with Brian Johnson being lost to the disabled list, has left the PawSox thin on starters. The role change for Barnes is out of necessity, not out of what’s best for his future.

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The Red Sox are essentially using Barnes to fill a short-term need at the expense of his future development. We saw the dangers of yanking young pitchers around as recently as last season, when Brandon Workman bounced between the rotation and bullpen. He ended up struggling as a starter and has since undergone Tommy John surgery that will sideline him for the rest of the season. Looking beyond recent history, we all remember how poorly this method worked out for Daniel Bard, a once elite reliever like the one Boston is now seeking whose career was ruined by a failed attempt to convert him into a starter.

You look around the league at top teams like the Kansas City Royals and New York Yankees and you see them winning with dominant bullpens filled with power arms. What do most of those relievers have in common? They failed at being starters. Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, Wade Davis. They were all once pegged as top pitching prospects that worked their way through the minors as starters, only to ultimately find their niche in the bullpen. The Red Sox have plenty of failed starters, so perhaps there is hope they could turn some of them into the type of bullpen arms those teams have.

The blazing fastball of Barnes once made him a top pitching prospect in the Red Sox organization, but his future no longer appears to be as a starter. If he’s ever going to develop into a useful bullpen arm, the Red Sox need to stop toying with his career and let him settle into the role he was meant for.