The Boston Red Sox bullpen needs some reinforcements and the issue may be exacerbated by Joe Kelly’s sudden, or not so sudden, slump.
As the long trek that is the baseball schedule moves forward a reality sets in on players who have been exceptional in the first few months. One may define exceptional as just awful, such as Jackie Bradley, or as par excellence, as Red Sox reliever Joe Kelly.
Kelly is in the right place at the right time. That is with a market that rewards pitchers with enormous contracts and one niche that has profited are relief pitchers. The 30-year-old righty is now a relief pitcher. The reason is Kelly failed as a starter.
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In 2017 Kelly had a breakout season working out of the bullpen with some impressive numbers. The numerical minutia is 54 games, 58 innings pitched, 42 hits, 2.79 ERA, 4.2 BB/9, and 8.1 K/9. A solid performance and that certainly raised the flag of hope for 2018.
Kelly has – until recently – been superlative. It was needed with Tyler Thornburg on perpetual recovery and Carson Smith fast becoming an ignominious footnote in Red Sox history. Kelly throws hard (97.8) and has a variety of pitches that he has mastered. Nice to have a fallback when a curve or change has suddenly gone on vacation during an appearance.
What Kelly also has had in recent weeks is a return to normalcy. In his first 26 innings Kelly allowed just five earned runs. But in the not so pleasant month of June Kelly has allowed six in just five innings. Is it wear and tear? A slump? Or – and this is my take – just the nature of baseball taking care of business. A baseball Darwinian approach.
The early bandwagon on which I was seated in the third row had Kelly potentially closing for the Red Sox in 2019. My sensible side was at war with my rose-colored glasses side to ignore that BB/9 in 2017-18. Craig Kimbrel would cost a fortune, but Kelly less so. And the dollars are important with a potential 42.5% luxury tax presenting a frightening fiscal specter.
I am not dismissing Kelly since as a loyal camp follower of all things Red Sox I do believe Kelly will get back on track. Maybe not the track that has allowed no earned runs at home this season. But a track that will not have you hiding in the closet when he steps on the rubber. I will reserve that for Heath Hembree.
What the sudden crumbling of the Kelly armor does is force the Red Sox into the uncomfortable situation of fortifying their bullpen outside the system. They will have to search the baseball landscape for another Addison Reed. You will see the usual suspects arrive from Pawtucket like Robby Scott only to be greeted with line drives of various degrees of impact.
The long-range issue is the Red Sox may be in a situation where Kimbrel will be overpaid since the other viable options – Kelly, Smith, and Thornburg are not the answer to being a closer. As for the present, getting to Kimbrel – who also appears a bit shaky – is becoming a tad more difficult with Kelly no longer being Mr. Automatic.