Red Sox News: Closer role shaping up to be a two-man race

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 08: Matt Barnes #32 of the Boston Red Sox throws a pitch in the seventh inning during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on September 8, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Phillies won 6-5. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 08: Matt Barnes #32 of the Boston Red Sox throws a pitch in the seventh inning during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on September 8, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Phillies won 6-5. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images) /

The Red Sox are narrowing their choices to serve in the closer role

The bullpen was a clear area of need for the Boston Red Sox this offseason. While they made some additions to improve through free agency and the trade market, a clear-cut candidate to handle the ninth inning wasn’t among those acquisitions. Despite a free-agent market that was saturated with relievers carrying the “proven closer” tag, Boston bypassed several affordable options who could fill the void at the top of their bullpen hierarchy.

The topic was discussed when Alex Cora addressed the media on Saturday. While he stopped short of committing to one option to serve as his closer, the manager did emphasize the value of having structure in the bullpen. This suggests that his preference isn’t to resort to the dreaded closer-by-committee strategy. Cora intends to have a primary closer even if that pitcher who will serve in that role hasn’t been identified yet.

One pitcher we can cross off the list is Hirokazu Sawamura. The right-hander has more experience as a closer than anyone on the Red Sox staff, notching 75 saves during his 10-year career in Japan. The vast majority of those saves were tallied during a two-year stretch from 2015-2016 and he hasn’t served as his team’s primary closer since. Transitioning to MLB is challenging enough for a player from overseas without throwing them into the fire of the ninth inning out of the gate. “We’re not gonna do that,” confirmed Cora.

That narrows the viable candidates down to Adam Ottavino and Matt Barnes.

Cora expressed his excitement with Ottavino joining the bullpen. He doesn’t view Ottavino as a pitcher in need of a bounce-back year, pointing out that one bad outing against the Toronto Blue Jays in which he was shelled for six runs without recording an out was the reason for his disappointing 5.89 ERA last season. Ottavino has already bounced back from that meltdown, allowing only one run over his final seven appearances. There’s no reason to worry about Ottavino being a trustworthy option late in games.

Another comment that Cora made which may hint at Ottavino being in the mix for the closer role is that he plans to use the right-hander differently from the way he was utilized by the New York Yankees. Last year, Ottavino pitched less than one full inning in 12 of his 24 appearances. Cora wants to use him mostly in clean innings against both right- and left-handed hitters and expects him to be able to close out the frame. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be the ninth inning but the description fits how teams typically deploy their closer.

The hesitance to name Ottavino as the closer might be Cora’s desire to keep his top reliever in a more flexible role. The best hitters in the opposing lineup aren’t necessarily due up in the ninth inning. If the Red Sox need to protect a lead against the heart of the order in the eighth, that’s when Ottavino should be used rather than waiting for the glorified save situation.

The alternative we’re left with is Barnes but trusting the veteran reliever to be the closer is a fool’s errand. He has 15 career saves on his resume but he piled those up in 33 opportunities for a vomit-inducing 45.5% success rate. Granted, not all of those blown saves were in the ninth inning but we have plenty of evidence to show that Barnes isn’t a reliable closer.

Cora acknowledged that Barnes has a history of being wild, alluding to his career 4.2 BB/9, a walk rate that reached alarmingly high levels by crossing over 5.0 BB/9 in each of the last two seasons. Teams can’t afford to have traffic on the bases late in games, which supports the argument against using Barnes as the closer.

While the walks are a clear concern, Barnes partially negates that problem with an elite strikeout rate. He owns a 11.7 K/9 for his career and set a career-high with a 15.4 K/9 in 2019. Teams generally prefer a power pitcher who piles up strikeouts and Barnes at least fits that mold.

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Some of the inconsistency that has plagued Barnes can be tied to a heavy workload. Cora referenced a stretch in 2019 that was physically and mentally draining for Barnes. With few reliable options to turn to, Cora leaned on Barnes a bit too much that season. Using him in a stable role as the close could help keep his workload more balanced.

Barnes did see a slight dip in velocity last year with an average fastball of 96 mph, down from the previous two years when he was just shy of 97 mph. That could partially be chalked up to a small sample size with less time to build up his arm in a short season. Cora also mentioned that Barnes has made some adjustments that he believes will lead to improvement this season.

One reason to favor Barnes as the closer is to increase his value in his final season before he hits free agency. If the Red Sox fall out of the playoff race, Barnes could be a trade chip at the deadline. They managed to get a solid return for Brandon Workman last summer despite that he wasn’t having a great season and had a limited track record. Why not try to do the same with Barnes by allowing him to masquerade as a closer for a few months?

At his best, Barnes has the stuff to be a closer. His lapses in control leading to an inconsistent track record make him an underwhelming choice if he does indeed win the closer spot but at this point, it might be his job to lose.

If Barnes thrives in the role, it probably means the Red Sox are in the hunt. If he falters, Boston could turn to Ottavino instead. Perhaps Sawamura works his way into the role the way Koji Uehara once did, despite starting out the year buried on the bullpen depth chart. Darwinzon Hernandez might get a shot if he proves to be more than a specialist who dominates left-handed hitters.

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It was surprising that the Red Sox passed on adding one of the viable closers available on the free-agent market but Cora still has confidence in the arms at his disposal. Regardless, of which pitcher is tasked with the ninth inning, the late-inning options are undoubtedly an improvement over what the Red Sox had to work with over the last two years.