Red Sox Spring Training: Battle for bullpen spots heating up

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) /
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Red Sox reliever Phillips Valdez
Red Sox reliever Phillips Valdez. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images) /

Red Sox final bullpen candidates

Phillips Valdez was the breakout star of last year’s bullpen but that success hasn’t carried over to this spring. He owns a 10.80 ERA and 1.65 WHIP with nearly as many walks (7) as strikeouts (8).

Valdez relies heavily on his changeup, throwing it 48.9 percent of the time last season, per Baseball Savant. It was an effective pitch last year when he held opposing hitters to a .194 batting average and generated a 36.8 WHIP% with the changeup. The problem is that he’s struggling to find the strike zone this spring. When he falls behind in the count, hitters aren’t going to chase the changeup down in the zone. He needs to leave it up more to get a strike, leading hitters to hammer the pitch if they are sitting on it. Valdez needs to prove he can get ahead with the sinker so that he can put hitters away with the change.

His exciting 2020 campaign might give Valdez a leg up in the competition but he’s better off ironing out his control issues in Triple-A if he doesn’t show progress over the next week since he has minor league options remaining.

Colten Brewer hasn’t given the Red Sox much reason to trust him this spring, surrendering four earned runs in 4 1/3 innings.

He was decent out of the bullpen last year though even if his overall results don’t show it. Brewer was part of Boston’s failed opener experiment last year, making four “starts.” He owned a solid 3.97 ERA in seven relief appearances and has the ability to pitch multiple innings.

Austin Brice owned a disappointing 5.95 ERA last season but he throws hard with upper-90s velocity and produced a strong 11.4 K/9. Unfortunately, the impressive strikeout rate was negated by a brutal walk rate of 5.9 BB/9.

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Brice has been mediocre this spring with a 5.40 ERA in five innings of work but the 6-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio is much more appealing.

While most of these candidates can be shipped to Triple-A if they aren’t ready, Brice is out of minor league options. If he doesn’t make the cut, the Red Sox might need to cut bait.

The most appealing candidate has been non-roster invitee Kevin McCarthy, who hasn’t allowed a run in six innings this spring while striking out six without a walk.

The former Kansas City Royals reliever has never been overpowering with his low-90s fastball and underwhelming 5.6 K/9 but he has good command and an elite groundball rate of 58.7% for his career. He’s a trustworthy veteran who provides a different look from the flamethrowers who account for the majority of the bullpen options.

McCarthy has an upward mobility cause in his contract, which means the Red Sox must offer him to every other team if they don’t add him to their 40-man roster by March 28. We should assume another team would claim him considering his strong spring, so the Red Sox will lose him if they don’t clear a spot for him on the 40-man roster.