An updated look at the bullpen depth that the Boston Red Sox have available for their Opening Day roster and the roles they may fill.
The Boston Red Sox bullpen remains a work in progress with key pieces hitting the free agent market and their hesitance to strike at the available replacement options.
Joe Kelly‘s departure for Los Angeles creates a hole in the middle relief core and Craig Kimbrel‘s potential exit opens a bigger void in the ninth inning. The expectation is that Boston will sign a closer in free agency, whether it be Kimbrel becoming more realistic about what relievers are worth in this market or pivoting to a cheaper alternative.
How the rest of the bullpen lines up depends on who steps into the closer role. Here’s what we know based on the options currently in the organization.
Locks for Opening Day
In the event that Kimbrel bolts in free agency and the Red Sox fail to sign a replacement, turning to Barnes or Brasier appears to be the fallback plan for the closer role. Neither has any experience as a closer which makes relying on them risky for a contending club. No matter how many times Dave Dombrowski claims he’s content with his current options, ideally they will sign a proven closer so that these two can share the setup duties.
The Red Sox avoided arbitration with Hembree and Thornburg by reaching one-year deals with each of them, signaling that they expect both to make the roster. Otherwise they would have been non-tender candidates.
Johnson could be utilized in long relief or against lefties. His value on the roster is boosted by his ability to step in as a spot starter when needed.
Battling for a spot
Assuming that the Red Sox carry eight relievers on their 25-man roster, one of which is reserved for the free agent closer they hope to sign, that leaves only two more open spots for a handful of options.
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Poyner is more of a lefty specialist who may get squeezed off the roster considering the Red Sox showed last season they don’t necessarily need to stock their bullpen with lefties.
Workman has had trouble staying healthy in recent years but he’s been moderately successful when given the opportunity. He was horrible in the postseason, allowing five earned runs in one inning spread over two appearances. Recency bias may work against him so he’ll need a strong camp to earn back the team’s trust.
Velazquez and Wright are both long relief options with the ability to spot start. With Johnson also filling that role, it’s hard to envision the Red Sox keeping both of these right-handers on the roster. Wright’s timeline for recovering from his latest knee surgery is uncertain, giving Velazquez the edge for now. If Wright is ready to start the season on time, his track record should bump him to the front of this group.
Smith is a wild card after the Red Sox surprisingly re-signed him to a minor league deal. Injuries cost him the majority of his three-year stint with the team. He missed most of this year with a shoulder injury caused by slamming his glove in the dugout, then bizarrely tried to pin the blame on his manager by complaining about his workload. If he’s healthy and buries the hatchet with Alex Cora, Smith has the most upside in this group.
Dark horse candidates
These are all long shots for Opening Day. We’ve seen a strong spring training lead to an unexpected promotion to the big league roster before, so we can’t rule out the possibility it could happen to one of these pitchers. Even if the don’t start the season in the majors, a few of these relievers could get a shot at some point next season. Hernandez and Lakins are two enticing options to keep an eye on for the future.
How the Red Sox fill the closer role may alter the makeup of this bullpen but this gives us a solid idea of what the hierarchy will look like heading into camp this spring.