Red Sox DFA Austin Davis, Hirokazu Sawamura, call up Kaleb Ort, Zack Kelly
After dropping the series finale to the Tampa Bay Rays in embarrassing fashion on Sunday, the Boston Red Sox wasted no time upending the bullpen that rarely puts the ‘relief’ in relief pitching.
Following a 17-hit, 12-run barrage by their division rivals, the Sox designated Austin Davis and Hirokazu Sawamura for assignment. They will replace them with Zack Kelly and Kaleb Ort, who will join the team on Monday in Minnesota.
Ort struggled in his brief MLB debut, but he’s pitched well in Triple-A. That’s a tale as old as time for Red Sox minor leaguers. And when Cora picks up the bullpen phone to call for Kelly, it will be his first time on a big-league mound. He has a 2.72 ERA and a dominant 34.4% strikeout rate in 44 Triple-A appearances this season.
There are two ways to look at this double DFA. On the one hand, it suggests urgency. The front office still believes there’s a chance this team makes the Wild Card (sure, Jan), and Davis and Sawamura are liabilities they can’t afford weighing them down. But if this was the case, then why activate and option Tyler Danish to Triple-A on Sunday morning, rather than wait to activate and add him to the big-league roster after the game?
Unfortunately, the Danish decision suggests that we should look at this situation the second, more realistic way: these roster moves mean that they know the season is over and they’re going to give Ort and Kelly a chance, to get a sense of whether or not either is a viable piece of the team’s future, next season and beyond. They gave Tanner Houck the same kind of chance during the mercifully-short 2020 season. In other words, they’re throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Pretty embarrassing for one of the biggest market teams in the game.
Signing Jeurys Familia to a minor-league deal when the Phillies released him earlier this month also makes it hard to believe this is a team with some fight in it. Now that they’ve called up the veteran reliever, they can’t send him down unless he agrees. He’s accumulated the requisite service time to refuse a demotion, so unless they plan to release him, they’re stuck with him.
But there are actually quite a few good bullpen arms on this team. John Schreiber is a great Chaim Bloom pickup, he’s just totally overworked after cleaning up everyone else’s messes all summer. Houck is injured and not allowed into Canada (unvaccinated), but he was quite good out of the pen for most of the season. Matt Strahm has been quite dependable, and Garrett Whitlock has proven to be one of the best finds in franchise history. Matt Barnes seems to be finding himself again, though consistency has always been an issue for him.
Still, it’s hard to remember an upcoming offseason in which a significant pitching overhaul wasn’t a top priority for this organization. But with Bloom doing things the Rays way, there have been a lot of one-year contracts, especially in the pitching department. Strahm and starters Rich Hill, Michael Wacha, and James Paxton, all signed for this season, will be free agents this winter, as will Nathan Eovaldi, whose contract is one of the few remaining Dave Dombrowski deals on the roster. The Sox might extend a Qualifying Offer to Wacha and/or Eovaldi, but even if they do, they’ll still need to fill many holes. Paxton has a two-year club option or one-year player option, but he isn’t going to pitch at all this year, so he’s a huge question mark and risk. And at this point, they can’t count on Chris Sale to stay healthy, either.
But even if the Red Sox didn’t have so many expiring contracts, fans might actually start a riot if they put a pitching staff of this caliber (or lack thereof) back on the field in 2023. After Sunday’s loss, Alex Speier noted that the Sox’ 4.50 ERA this season is the second-worst in the American League. They’ve allowed 320 runs since the start of July; no other team has given up more than 300; they’re 50+ runs ahead of all other AL teams.
It’s not just this season, either. Cold, hard facts back up the eye test that tells us this team has needed real bullpen help for a long time. During the 2018 postseason run, manager Alex Cora pressed his stellar starting rotation into several innings of relief work. The World Series famously ended with Sale striking Manny Machado out with such ferocity that he swung himself down onto one knee. Dating back to the 2019 season, their 86 blown saves are tied for the most in MLB over that span.
Most fans have known this year isn’t Boston’s year for a while now.
One last thing: if the Sox are punting September and looking forward (which feels like the strategic move), where’s Triston Casas? Eric Hosmer is on the Injured List and we’re well into the 45-day limit, so his rookie status will remain intact for 2023. Bloom and Cora slammed the brakes on a Casas debut, but if the season is as over as it’s felt for a while, then, as Hilary Duff would belt out, why not take a crazy chance?