Red Sox: Boston’s bullpen will be just fine despite injuries

Mar 1, 2017; Sarasota, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart (23) singles during the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 1, 2017; Sarasota, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart (23) singles during the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Boston Red Sox enter the season with a banged up bullpen, but there is still plenty of talented arms they can call on in relief.

On paper, the 2017 Boston Red Sox have very few holes.

The offense? Loaded.

Last year’s juggernaut tallied over 100 runs more than anyone else in the American League, and despite the retirement of David Ortiz, Boston should continue to score with the best of them thanks to an abundance of youthful talent.

Starting pitching? Stacked.

Boston expects to boast a five-man rotation consisting of three 2016 All-Stars, the reigning Cy Young winner AND David Price for most of the season. Unless a massive wave of injuries hits, the rotation should be among the best in baseball.

Shutdown closer? Absolutely.

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Craig Kimbrel struggled at times last season but remains one of the nastiest relievers in baseball. His “down year” was still good for an All-Star appearance, and there’s no reason to think Kimbrel won’t be back to his dominating self of old in 2017.

So, what’s the problem? How could anyone have reservations about this team competing for a World Series title?

Well…as has become more and more evident over the past few seasons, bullpens play a major factor in winning it all. And as of right now, the talk is all about Boston’s bullpen question marks.

After the disappointing news that offseason acquisition/setup man Tyler Thornburg will likely begin the season on the DL, it’s hard to pinpoint the arm in the Red Sox bullpen worthy of the most trust (outside of Kimbrel).

Until Thornburg and fellow injured setup man Carson Smith are able to return, a combination of Matt Barnes, Robbie Ross Jr., Fernando Abad, Robby Scott, Heath Hembree, and Joe Kelly will be trusted to take over the innings between All-Star starters and All-Star closer.

I may be in the minority, but I feel pretty darn good about that list.

Matt Barnes:

Matt Barnes has all the stuff you’d want out of a bullpen arm. Unfortunately, he hasn’t quite been able to put it all together just yet. Barnes’ hard fastball and devastating breaking ball leave hitters looking foolish at times, but when occasional command issues have arisen, Barnes has struggled.

Still, Farrell stuck with Barnes throughout much of the 2016 season. The 27-year-old appeared in a team high 62 games out of the bullpen, so it’s clear that the Red Sox manger believes deeply in Barnes. Based off how much he was used last season, and his spring training success (0.93 ERA), one would think he is in line to take over significant innings in April/May.

Robbie Ross Jr: 

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Fans may think of Ross mainly for his incredible flow/home run catching skills, but as a pitcher, he’s no slouch, either. Ross has proven to be a worthwhile investment for Boston following a disastrous final season in Texas.

He has a well-established sample size by now and it’s hard to imagine Ross would regress significantly from his 2016 numbers. The best part of Ross’ game is his ability to keep the ball in the ballpark. Last season, Ross only allowed two home runs in 54 appearances, which especially at Fenway, is quite the feat.

Fernando Abad:

Fernando Abad finds himself in a similar situation as Ross. He was, to put it lightly, horrible upon arriving from Minnesota, but overall is still looking to build off a solid 2016. Abad has a lifetime 3.71 ERA, which is more than respectable for a journeyman veteran. I wouldn’t count on Abad to be the centerpiece of a bullpen, nonetheless, he can be an effective middle relief arm.

Robby Scott:

Scott is intriguing mostly because he’s a lefty who has shown an incredible propensity for sitting down left-handed hitters. Last season in Pawtucket, Scott posted a 2.54 ERA, which is in line with his career 2.75 ERA at all minor league levels. His success earned a call up to the majors, where he pitched lights out, allowing no runs in seven appearances. This spring, Scott has looked the part of a major piece to the ‘pen, and under the radar has absolutely earned a shot to stick with the big club in a major role.

Heath Hembree:

Speaking of talented pitchers under the radar, Heath Hembree, quite frankly, gets zero respect. Last season, as Hembree was sent up and down multiple times, it felt like John Farrell wasn’t willing to go to him enough. He has produced a 2.87 ERA in 75 career appearances, and although he doesn’t have the overwhelming stuff of a Matt Barnes or Joe Kelly, all Hembree does is get outs. I’d like to see more of Heath Hembree early on in 2017.

Joe Kelly:

In my opinion, the most important reliever not named Kimbrel early on will be Joe Kelly.

A lot of talk lately has surrounded Kelly taking over the primary set-up man role. He certainly looks the part of a late-inning reliever, possessing 99 mile-per-hour gas and a breaking ball that looks like it comes from a video game.

Last season, Kelly pitched incredibly well once moved to his natural role in the ‘pen from a square peg-in-round hole fit at the end of the rotation. There were few better relievers in baseball than Kelly (statistically speaking at least) in a second-half that saw him post a 1.02 ERA and a 1.019 WHIP. His inconsistent career in Boston is been expected by many to turn around this season with a permanent role in the ‘pen, and while it’s true that Joe Kelly’s blue-chip skills need to consistently translate to production, he has a good chance to become the consistent set-up man Boston needs.

Next: Red Sox Prospect Watch

Now that you’ve taken a long look around the bullpen, it should hopefully be apparent that there’s no need to panic just yet. If a few of Boston’s relievers can start off the 2017 campaign hot, the Red Sox will be in the driver’s seat when Thornburg, Smith and Price return. And while that may seem a bit daunting at the moment, it should become more and more clear that the Red Sox have plenty of solid options.