Red Sox: A look back on building the bullpen for 2017

May 7, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Heath Hembree (37) pitches to the Minnesota Twins in the seventh inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
May 7, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Heath Hembree (37) pitches to the Minnesota Twins in the seventh inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports /

The Boston Red Sox bullpen is not great, but it is very good. Just what circumstances came together to make this happen?

Sometimes good fortune in baseball comes via accident and not necessarily design. A baseball general manager makes critical decisions on trades and contracts with the prospect that it could all end up like the loser in a game of icebreakers. General managers do not have Tarot Cards, fortune tellers, psychics or any other support except volumes of data that can often be flushed when reality hits home.

The Red Sox made an offseason acquisition in Tyler Thornburg that was almost universally accepted as a shrew transaction. The hard throwing right-hander was an exceptionally capable relief pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers, who could whiff batters or entice ground balls. Thornburg could fulfill any bullpen role, including the nerve-rattling closer job.

Boston only gave up minor league players who had a limited future with the Red Sox and a third baseman whose shelf life apparently had expired. If we knew then what we know now, Travis Shaw would be at third in Boston and Thornburg still in the bullpen in Milwaukee. But even in the worst of times, things fall into place in the great baseball puzzle – there was more to this deal than just Thornburg.

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Boston passed on two pitchers who had done rather well. I will feel comfortable stating that Koji Uehara was one of the very best closers I have seen in just about any uniform. Junichi Tazawa certainly had his moments of failure, but the moments of success far exceeded those. I would have unequivocally spent the money to have Koji back as a bridge to Thornburg.

The Red Sox management had another design either motivated by money or based on some type of projection that placed faith in two pitchers I had little faith in – Matt Barnes and Heath Hembree. Relying on both is like expecting a wayward child to suddenly see the light of reason after decades of disappointment, but both have managed to give a solid level of stability and to minimize the loss of Thornburg.

As a professional nitpicker, I can be alarmed at Hembree’s propensity for allowing too many hits (10.1 H/9), but the magical offset is a downright shocking 1.6 BB/9. Barnes walks too many at a 3.6 BB/9, but he does have a nice 9.9 K/9. Neither are “great” bullpen pitchers, but they are good and a very solid reason why the Boston bullpen is ranked fourth in the American League despite the MIA status of Thornburg and Carson Smith.

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There are other reasons for the surprising stability of the bullpen and, of course, that starts with Craig Kimbrel. Unless you have wandered Mount Ararat in search of Noah’s Ark Mr. Kimbrel is on a historic run as a closer. Flying under the pitching radar is Joe Kelly, the turnaround season by Fernando Abad and Robby Scott, whose performance has sent Robbie Ross to the cornfield at Pawtucket.

The Red Sox management may not have hit Powerball with the bullpen, but a nice healthy scratch ticket winning. As for Koji and Tazawa? I will have to take a very large and very wet rag to wipe the egg off my face on that one. Koji is doing fine in Chicago, but the current group is doing as well if not better and far cheaper. Tazawa is simply being pounded.

The bullpen will have their moments as Barnes and Hembree both give up the too frequent meatball home runs, but they have been more – at least for me – than expected. And toss in the others – especially Kelly –  for good measure and the Red Sox bullpen is like finding a nice healthy account with your name on it in Find Mass Money.

Next: Red Sox vs. Yankees series preview

Was it all luck? Is Dave Dombrowski a visionary? Are the baseball operations denizens soothsayers? Probably a wee bit of all three and another reason being a baseball predictor – a key management ingredient – is just so damn difficult.