Red Sox need to shake up bullpen by demoting closer Matt Barnes

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 20: Matt Barnes #32 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the ninth inning of a game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on April 20, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 20: Matt Barnes #32 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the ninth inning of a game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on April 20, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /
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Matt Barnes is in danger of losing his role as the Red Sox closer

A few short weeks ago, the ninth inning appeared to be the least of their concerns. Now the Boston Red Sox are suddenly in a position where they must seriously consider demoting Matt Barnes from the closer role.

Barnes was having a career-year that earned him his first All-Star selection. His overall production still appears solid with a 3.91 ERA, 2.97 FIP, 1.05 WHIP, and 14.2 K/9 but his numbers are trending in the wrong direction during a brutal month of August.

The right-hander has blown a save, taken a loss or both in four of his last eight appearances. He owns a cringe-worthy 16.88 ERA this month with 10 earned runs allowed in 5 1/3 innings. The strikeout rate remains elite with 10 punchouts over that span but he’s also walked five batters and coughed up three home runs.

The Red Sox didn’t give Barnes the opportunity to blow another lead once he got into trouble in the ninth inning of Tuesday’s game against the Minnesota Twins. Tasked with protecting a three-run lead, Barnes quickly turned the game into a nail-biter by giving up a home run to Josh Donaldson to lead off the inning, followed by consecutive walks.

Manager Alex Cora mercifully pulled his closer before he could record an out in the inning.  With limited options left standing in the bullpen, the Red Sox turned to Hansel Robles to finish off his former team.

Robles made his typical entrance to The Undertaker’s theme song but the eerie music could have just as easily served as the sound of a funeral for Barnes’ tenure as the Red Sox closer. According to MassLive’s Chris Cotillo, Cora hinted after the game that changes may be coming to the back end of his bullpen.

"“We’re concerned,” said Cora. “Yeah, we are. Obviously, we’re not going to pick on the guy but we have to make adjustments, whatever it is. We’ve been talking about it.”"

Cora wouldn’t reveal who the alternative options might be but it presumably doesn’t include Robles despite that he has some experience in the role with 11 saves this season in time split between Minnesota and Boston.

Robles also owns an unappealing 4.89 ERA. He throws the ball about as hard as anyone but doesn’t always know where it’s going, walking eight batters in 9 1/3 innings since he was dealt to the Red Sox. Inserting him into the closer role wouldn’t exactly inspire confidence. He got the nod last night simply because he was among the freshest available arms.

How the Red Sox could shake up the bullpen

WEEI’s Lou Merloni floated an interesting solution on Twitter during the game. He suggested moving Garrett Whitlock into the closer role, allowing Tanner Houck to replace him in the multi-inning middle relief role and calling up Connor Seabold to fill in at the back of the rotation.

The concept has some merit. Whitlock has been lights out this year, posting a 1.64 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 10.0 K/9. He’s been the team’s most reliable reliever, especially since Barnes started falling apart.

Houck is also in the midst of a strong rookie campaign but the Red Sox haven’t allowed him to go deeper than five innings or throw more than 90 pitches this year. If they remain concerned about Houck facing a lineup for a third time through the order, getting two or three innings out of him from the bullpen would be better than using a starter who can’t consistently give you at least five innings.

Seabold has shown flashes of dominance with Tripe-A Worcester this month, posting a 2.34 ERA over his last four starts with 30 strikeouts and only four walks over 23 innings.

This plan isn’t without some risk though. Whitlock has been great but he’s never been a closer. He’s had shaky outings against the division rival Rays and Yankees this month, which isn’t an encouraging sign for how he would handle high-pressure situations in the ninth inning. Houck’s upside is capped in a middle relief role, at least in the short term. Seabold only has six career appearances above Double-A.

Could it work? Absolutely. Is it a dangerous game to make such drastic changes at this point in the season? It sure is. Do the Red Sox really have much of a choice? Not really.

Red Sox demoting Barnes might only be temporary

The Red Sox don’t have a perfect solution but it’s clear they need to do something, even if it’s only temporary. Barnes needs to get his head on straight before he’s allowed near the ninth inning again.

His fastball command has been off lately, leading to an uptick in walks and too many pitches leaking out over the plate where opponents have been able to hammer the ball. Whether it’s mechanical or fatigue, Barnes needs a break from high-leverage situations.

That doesn’t mean the team has lost faith in Barnes in the long run. Hitting a rough patch for a few weeks isn’t going to make the front office regret the two-year extension they handed Barnes last month. Obviously, designating him for assignment isn’t on the table and trading him after the season would be senseless. Either he bounces back with a strong finish that makes the Red Sox want to keep him or they would be selling low on a pitcher who was a deserving All-Star this year.

It’s worth noting that we’ve seen this roller coaster ride from Barnes before. In 2018, Barnes owned a 2.30 ERA through July before posting an ugly 9.64 ERA in August. He showed signs of improvement with scoreless innings in five of his six September appearances and dominated the postseason with a 1.04 ERA in 8/23 innings.

Barnes will undoubtedly get back on track and be a useful asset for the Red Sox down the stretch and beyond this season. Until he proves that he’s figured things out on the mound, Boston can’t afford to keep trotting him out late in a tight game though. Barnes is still a big part of this team’s future but in the short-term, they need to rely on someone else.

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