Red Sox bullpen hierarchy remains in question after Opening Day

May 12, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Heath Hembree (37) pitches during the ninth inning against the Houston Astros at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
May 12, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Heath Hembree (37) pitches during the ninth inning against the Houston Astros at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports /

The way Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell utilized his bullpen in the first game of the season leaves us wondering where the team’s core relievers stand.

There are several talented arms in the Boston Red Sox bullpen and it’s up to manager John Farrell to figure out the best way to deploy them. We thought that we had a pretty good idea of what roles the core relievers on the team would play entering the season, at least until we saw how the late innings played out on Opening Day.

The closer role remains crystal clear, as the ninth inning belongs to Craig Kimbrel. His spot is secure and he did his job on Monday to lock up the win in a scoreless inning, allowing a hit and striking out a pair. The bridge between starter and closer remains murky.

The Red Sox acquired Tyler Thornburg from the Milwaukee Brewers over the winter to serve as their new setup man, only for him to begin the season on the disabled list. Until he returns, Boston will need to piece together the seventh and eighth innings by committee.

"“Without a returning lock-down eighth inning guy, we’re about settling into some roles as quick as possible,” Farrell told WEEI’s Rob Bradford. “There’s going to be a little bit more matching up right now before we bridge to Kimbrel in the ninth. You take some of the momentum that certain guys have coming out of spring training with how they are throwing the ball — [Heath] Hembree and [Matt] Barnes from the right-handed side have probably been the most consistent. Robby Scott and Fernando [Abad] from the left side have probably had more momentum coming out of spring training.”"

The first option that Farrell turned to in the bullpen was Matt Barnes, who relieved starter Rick Porcello with one out in the seventh inning when he started to show signs of wearing down in an otherwise spectacular performance. While Barnes wasn’t charged with a run, he allowed both inherited runs to score by giving up a hit, a walk and throwing a wild pitch before escaping the inning with the Red Sox still holding a three run lead. Instead of coasting to the finish line, we suddenly had a game on our hands with a save situation looming, giving us our first chance to see how Farrell would handle the setup role leading to Kimbrel.

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As recently as a week ago, it was presumed that Joe Kelly would fill the eighth inning void until Thornburg returned. Instead, Farrell summoned Robby Scott to start the inning. He would face only one batter, getting Gregory Polanco to ground out to second on his first pitch. Bringing in a lefty to face the left-handed hitter makes sense. While the Red Sox ideally want a setup man they can trust to retire hitters from both sides of the plate, this strategy of playing the match ups may be what’s necessary until they get Thornburg back.

Fine, but why send in the relatively unproven Scott over Robbie Ross, who was one of the team’s most consistent relievers last season and held lefties to a .188 batting average? Ross had a rough spring, coughing up 10 earned runs over 10 innings, so Farrell could point to Scott having more momentum entering the season.

Fair enough, except how do you explain using Heath Hembree over Kelly? Once Scott did his job to retire the lefty, Farrell went back to a right-hander to face the next two right-handed hitters. Kelly stumbled at the end of camp, allowing four runs over his final five spring appearances, yet still finished with a decent 3.72 ERA. A few poor outings may have cost Kelly the setup role, although it’s not as if Hembree was lights out this spring, posting a 5.59 ERA.

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Scott got an opportunity over Ross based on better spring results, while Hembree got the nod over Kelly despite pitching poorly in Grapefruit League games. How does that make sense?

It’s not that Hembree is a poor choice. He held right-handed hitters to .201 average and .591 OPS last year, better than any reliever on the team outside of Kimbrel. What’s concerning is that calling on Hembree contradicts what Farrell said about momentum coming out of spring training, using the opposite of the logic used to determine which lefty to start the inning with.

Barnes was arguably the best reliever in the Red Sox bullpen this spring, allowing only one run over 9 2/3 innings. Then when given the chance to pitch in a game that matters, he faltered. Maybe we shouldn’t look too deeply into spring training results.

We can’t complain too much about Farrell’s decisions considering it worked out, at least this time. Not seeing Kelly in the eighth was surprising, but Scott and Hembree got the job done, which ultimately is all that matters.

Despite the win, we’re no closer to determining the bullpen hierarchy. Farrell claims he wants his relievers to settle into their roles as quickly as possible, while his decisions suggest that he’s still toying with different options, leaving pitchers without clearly defined roles.

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Farrell is still trying to figure things out with his bullpen in the absence of their setup man, whose return will alter the alignment again. We should see a bit more consistency once Thornburg is back in the mix to secure the eighth inning, but until then the later innings of tight games will be left to the whims of a manager who has never been known for his ability to manage a bullpen.

It worked out fine on Opening Day. How it pans out moving forward is anyone’s guess.