Should the Boston Red Sox keep Matt Barnes as closer?
Matt Barnes is a rather rare item on the Boston Red Sox pitching staff since he is a product of the farm system. Barnes was a first-round selection of the Red Sox (2011), but the Red Sox actually had their eyes on Sonny Gray who was drafted just prior to Barnes by the A’s. So much for history.
The minors started for Barnes in 2012 and for three seasons he was a starter with a losing record (21-25). In 2015, a conversion took place and Barnes was being retooled for the bullpen at Pawtucket after a very brief cup, or really a sip, of coffee at the end of 2014.
The right-handed Barnes has two basic pitches with a fastball (96.0v) and a curve (85.1v). The fastball may be quite impressive but when Barnes has his curve working it is a knee-buckler of note. Excellent swing and miss, especially when both pitches are working in tandem and that has been a problem with Barnes who is prone to have control vanish.
In 2019, Barnes was one of many who tried and joined the many who failed before the departed Brandon Workman took over as closer. Barnes had a 33.3 save percentage. That would explain a return to other bullpen roles.
This just-completed season, the 30-year-old Barnes again was tossed into the pool to swim when Workman was traded and Barnes came close to drowning, blowing four saves in 13 tries. For his Red Sox career, Barnes has a 45.5% for saves. Part of the issue is the aforementioned control with a BB/9 that has steadily increased from a 3.6 BB/9 in 2017 to a 5.5 BB/9 in 2020.
Barnes will also be in arbitration in this offseason and will undoubtedly get a bounce over his $3.1 million pre-virus figure for 2020. So in summary, you have a closer who will fail more than he will succeed when presented with a save opportunity. Conversely, when Barnes has his two basic pitches functioning he is tough – very tough.
What do you do?
Internally, the first and most obvious option would be Darwinzon Hernandez. Hernandez is a strikeout machine with a career 16.3 K/9 in his short career, but he actually makes Barnes control look like Pedro Martinez’s with a 7.7 BB/9 for his 38.2 career innings. The lefty is riskier than Barnes.
Right-hander Ryan Brasier is a distinct possibility and has closed in his career, but with limited success gathering in seven saves in 15 attempts. Brasier is 33-years-old and has been around the baseball block. Lefty Josh Taylor has not been around the baseball block but Taylor has never processed a save in four tries.
Newcomer right-hander Phillips Valdez was a pleasant surprise for the season getting into more challenging high leverage situations. Valdez did have a save opportunity with the usual result of this staff – a blown save. Valdez also has a 4.7 BB/9.
Righty Ryan Weber has superior control with a career 2.0 BB/9 and stuff that is hittable (9.2 H/9) and potentially long-distance material (1.7 HR/9). Then comes the remaining detritus that goes from Colten Brewer to Mike Kickham and then the forgettable such as Matt Hall. There is simply nothing on the current staff that can challenge Barnes for closer.
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The focus in the minors has been on developing starting pitching and with Tanner Houck that may finally be paying dividends. As far as closers there are prospects but not in line for 2021. Hard-throwing Jacob Wallace is promising but has a very long road ahead of him. Durbin Feltman was the next greatest a few seasons back but he has stalled. After that, you get into the real lower depths of the prospect pool.
The free-agent market always has a ready supply available and I would expect Chaim Bloom to dabble a bit. Wade Davis was hot stuff back in 2018 (43 saves) but is now on the scrap heap after being released by the Rockies. Greg Holland will be 35-years-old and still doing a creditable job. Kirby Yates is solid, but Yates will be coming off elbow surgery.
The check it out game could go on and on. Holland, Yates, and Davis have all led the league in saves at one point in their careers. They offer a blend of possibilities with one being down and out, one being still capable, and one coming off a serious injury. The price range will reflect all of that, but the only one I would pursue is Workman.
Workman was perfect (4-for-4) for the Red Sox before being traded to Philadelphia and not so perfect for the Phillies, blowing three saves in eight tries. Workman had the same issues in Philadelphia that he had in Boston and it can be summarized by the following: BB/9. For his career, Workman has a save percentage hovering near 70%. Not Mariano Rivera territory.
Speaking of Bloom he may certainly attempt to go into discussions with potential trading partners to see what they are willing to give and vias versa. With Bloom, he tends to build his bullpens as in Tampa with pieces no one wants or undervalues. One would expect Bloom to keep on that path and not make an up in lights deal for a closer.
As far as the case for Barnes this is a baseball version of Russian Roulette letting him close and based on his career save record there are three slugs already chambered. Workman is a better option – not a great solution but more in the range of a good solution. Barnes is best suited for a role that can create less damage and havoc.