Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora isn’t worried about the lack of left-handed relievers in his bullpen because it doesn’t take a southpaw to get a lefty out.
A long held notion in baseball is that a bullpen needs a tough left-handed reliever to lock down lefty sluggers late in games. Is having a lefty-specialist a prerequisite for a successful bullpen? Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora doesn’t think so.
While Boston’s rotation is loaded with lefties, the bullpen can’t say the same. Robby Scott is the closest to a sure thing among available lefty relievers to make the Opening Day roster. He held left-handed bats to a .121 average and .527 OPS last season. Scott has a limited track record but may be the best option to call on if the Red Sox need a lefty.
Brian Johnson may wind up in the bullpen. He’s out of minor league options so the Red Sox will find a roster spot for him, barring a trade. However, he’s also in the mix to start the season at the back end of the rotation due to injuries that have depleted the team’s starting pitching depth. Johnson has never pitched out of the bullpen. If he does end up there he’ll be eased into the role. He may be best utilized as a long reliever or in low-leverage situations until he proves himself.
Beyond that, there are no obvious left-handed options to begin the year in Boston’s bullpen. While that may seem to put the Red Sox at a disadvantage late in games against teams with star lefty hitters, Cora isn’t worried.
Cora told reporters on Wednesday that he isn’t wedded to the idea of needing a lefty in the bullpen. Not when he has right-handed relievers at his disposal capable of getting lefties out.
Boston does happen to boast several right-handers that meet that criteria. The back of the bullpen is secure with Craig Kimbrel, who can get anyone out. Right-handed, left-handed, switch-hitters, hitters carrying two bats. Doesn’t matter, the fire-breathing closer will strike them out.
Bridging the gap to the closer are a pair of setup men looking to redeem themselves following long injury layoffs.
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Carson Smith tossed a mere 6 2/3 innings following his September debut but he looked great and should be stronger following a full offseason. He’s limited lefties to a .198 average and .522 OPS in his career. Smith has never shown noticeable splits and can be trusted against hitters from either side of the plate.
The entire 2017 season was wiped out for Tyler Thornburg. His ability to return to form is one of the biggest questions lingering over this pitching staff. Prior to his injury, Thornburg was another pitcher who could be counted on against any type of hitter. He’s a rare right-hander who is actually better against lefties. Thornburg has been no slouch against right-handed hitters but lefties have hit only .181 with a .531 OPS against him in his career.
Joe Kelly has also been solid against lefties. He allowed a .222 average and .671 OPS against them last year. His problem facing lefties has been the walks. Kelly surrendered 20 free passes in 84 plate appearances against lefties last season. He’ll need to improve upon that control in order to avoid getting the hook when a lefty steps to the plate in a tight spot.
Having more options to lock down lefties is a luxury, not a requirement. At least not to open the season. There’s no need to squeeze a more deserving candidate out of a roster spot in favor of someone who happens to throw left-handed.
If the available options falter in their roles or the bullpen is riddled with injuries then the issue can always be addressed mid-season by call-up or by trade.