Boston Red Sox: Wheels are coming off overworked bullpen

Phillips Valdez of the Boston Red Sox. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
Phillips Valdez of the Boston Red Sox. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) /

The wheels are coming off the overworked Red Sox bullpen.

Few were expecting the bullpen to be a strength for the Boston Red Sox but it hasn’t been the liability that many feared it would be entering the season. However, any notion that this group of relievers might exceed expectations is quickly unraveling as their workload increases.

Boston’s bullpen ranked in the middle of the pack until Monday’s eight-run implosion against the Tampa Bay Rays sent them plummeting toward the bottom. Red Sox relievers now own a collective 4.48 ERA, ranking 21st in the majors and third-worst in the American League.

The problem has been compounded by an over-reliance on these relievers. Boston’s bullpen has logged 78 1/3 innings through 16 games. The only club with more innings from their relievers is the Rays, the team that made the opener strategy trendy. Tampa Bay has also played one more game than Boston has this season.

Therein lies the problem. Chaim Bloom brought the opener philosophy with him from Tampa. It’s being utilized in Boston out of necessity since Bloom wasn’t given the budget to fill out a full five-man rotation, a hurdle he often found himself facing when he was running the Rays. Unfortunately, the Red Sox lack the quality arms that the Rays have in their bullpen. They are trying to scrape by with three viable starting pitchers but they don’t have the bullpen depth to handle utilizing two openers in the rotation.

This concern was on display during the latest loss to the Rays. The Red Sox got a scoreless inning out of Ryan Brasier to open the game before turning it over to the bullpen. The next four pitchers to appear for the Red Sox each allowed at least one run to erase the early lead the offense had built.

Eight runs were charged to Boston’s bullpen and they are fortunate it wasn’t more than that. Tampa Bay put 25 runners on base, tied for the most in franchise history against the Red Sox in a nine-inning game.

The Rays pulled ahead in the seventh inning when Kevin Kiermaier doubled to drive in a pair against Jeffrey Springs. The lefty had already recorded four outs in the game but was left in to face the first three batters in the seventh, none of whom he retired. What was a reliever with a career 5.61 ERA doing on the mound late in a tight game? Why didn’t manager Ron Roenicke have a shorter leash on a pitcher on his way to allowing eight earned runs in only 4 2/3 innings this season?

Perhaps because the manager had few alternatives to turn to. Matt Barnes and Josh Osich had been used in each of the last two days. Heath Hembree and Austin Brice pitched in two of the previous three games. It was too early to call on closer Brandon Workman.

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The only reliever who we could consider relatively trustworthy and well-rested for that spot was Phillips Valdez, who ended up taking over in the seventh after Springs allowed the Rays to pull ahead. Valdez got out of the jam without any further damage but wasn’t so fortunate when tasked with handling the eighth inning. The Red Sox pushed Valdez to a season-high 41 pitches in what was easily his worst outing, allowing five base runners and his first earned run of the season over his two innings of work.

The Red Sox have used at least five pitchers in 10 of their first 16 games. They used six last night after using seven pitchers in two of their previous three games.

Even when you consider the expanded rosters or the reduction in total innings that pitchers will pile up in a short season, that’s a heavy workload to carry in a short period of time. Boston is burning through their bullpen at a rapid pace, leading to situations like Monday night when they are stuck with a reliever who has no business handling a tight spot simply because they have nobody else to turn to.

The opener strategy is an interesting gimmick that the Rays found success with but using it to fill two rotation spots isn’t sustainable. Especially for a roster that has so few relievers in our circle of trust to begin with.

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The inability to assemble an acceptable major league rotation has forced the Red Sox to put too much pressure on their bullpen. They are giving away games and it will only get worse when their best arms begin to break down from the fatigue of carrying this woeful pitching staff.