Boston Red Sox bullpen has a missing link in their chain of relief

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 06: Craig Kimbrel
HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 06: Craig Kimbrel /

With the departure of Addison Reed to free agency, the Boston Red Sox need to find a replacement for the 8th inning setup role.

Spearheaded by closer Craig Kimbrel, the Boston Red Sox bullpen is long, but there’s a missing link in the relief chain from the 7th  to the 9th inning; who is ready to replace free agent Addison Reed in the critical setup role?

Reed served that role the final two months of last season following his acquisition from the Mets, but he seems likely to land back in New York.

Last season, Boston relievers ranked first in the majors in runners left on base (79.2 percent), second in ERA (3.15) and fourth in the American League in K/9 (9.81).

Currently, there are twelve pitchers listed on the Red Sox bullpen depth chart; by Opening Day, that will likely be trimmed down to seven, including Kimbrel.

The two most likely candidates to fill the setup role are righties Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg.

RHP Carson Smith

After recovering from May 2016 Tommy John surgery, Smith came on strong last September; he allowed one run in 6 2/3 innings in eight appearances. With a full offseason, the Red Sox are hopeful that Smith will resume the dominance he displayed before they got him (2.31 ERA, 70 appearances, 11.8 K/9 in 2015).

The Red Sox traded for him to specifically serve as the setup man for Kimbrel.

RHP Tyler Thornburg   

Thornburg, acquired prior to 2017, missed almost the entire season after surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome; he has been throwing this winter and is expected to be ready for spring training.

He hasn’t appeared in a game since 2016, making spring training a critical proving period for him. In 2016, he posted a 2.15 ERA and 12.1 K/9 over 67 innings in 67 appearances.

He is about even money with Carson to take over Reed’s former setup slot.

RHP Joe Kelly 

A dark horse candidate for the setup role would be Joe Kelly.

Kelly dominated before the All-Star game last season, finding the control that eluded his electric fastball in recent years; then fatigue slowed him in the second half. Nevertheless, he finished with a 2.79 ERA in 54 appearances; he had a lower K/9 than 2016 but also a lower BB/9.

As long as he can demonstrate his first half consistency and velocity, Kelly would be the best fit as the “Seventh Inning” guy.

With more starters barely getting out of the Fifth inning, the “Sixth Inning” guy becomes a vital link in the chain or relief.

Enter the three pitchers near the left on the bullpen bench:  Barnes, Hembree, and Workman.

RHP Matt Barnes

Barnes has been an innings-eater over the last few seasons for the Red Sox. He pitched a career-high 69 2/3 innings in 70 appearances in 2017, while also posting career bests with 10.7 K/9, a .224 batting average against and a .665 OPS against.

RHP Heath Hembree

Hembree had career highs in innings (62) and appearances (62) last year while putting up a career-best 10.2 K/9. He stranded 80.5 percent of runners. He was too often the victim of the HR bomb; Hembree gave up 10 homers and batters had a .360 batting average on balls in play.

RHP Brandon Workman

After losing the previous two seasons to Tommy John surgery, Workman had a rebound season in 2017 with a 3.18 ERA in 39 2/3 innings in 33 appearances. He held opponents to a .252 average

The other weak link is the dearth of left-handed pitchers.

Tony Watson, Brian Duensing and Oliver Perez are available via free agency, but, if Dombrowski can’t buy a left-hander, the Sox might consider converting starter Brian Johnson into a reliever, since he works fast and throws strikes.

Johnson is out of options for this season and therefore can’t be sent to Pawtucket without first going on waivers; so Dombrowski has mentioned using Johnson out of the bullpen this season and said the club will take a look at him as a reliever in spring training.

Barring injury to a starter, there’s no room for him in the rotation.  If he does not carve out a role in the bullpen, the Red Sox will have to hope he clears waivers.

LHP Robby Scott

When Robbie Ross was sent to Pawtucket and eventually for season-ending surgery.  Scott took over the main duties as the Sox’ lefty reliever last season; he held lefties to a .121 average last year.

Of the twelve relievers listed above, the following are the most likely to make the cut to open the season:

Craig Kimbrel, RHP
Carson Smith, RHP
Joe Kelly, RHP
Matt Barnes, RHP
Heath Hembree, RHP
Brandon Workman, RHP
Robby Scott, LHP

Kimbrel, who will become a free agent after the 2018 season, tossed 69 innings, racked up 126 strikeouts with a WHIP of 0.68. He struck out 16.4 batters per nine innings and dominated against right-handed hitters, who posted a weak  .109/.156/.180 slash line.

Over eight seasons, his ERA is 1.80. Last year, Kimbrel struck out 126 batters in 69 innings (16.4 K/9) while walking just 14. He stranded 93.9 percent of runners on base.

Next: Dustin Pedroia aiming to be ready by Opening Day

While Kimbrel is a gatekeeper at the end of the chain of relief, new manager Alex Cora will need to decide whether Smith or Thornburg fits the Set Up link and how to connect his other relievers to get from the sixth to the ninth inning to allow Kimbrel to lock up the win.