The Red Sox set a franchise record 108 wins last year. This year, they sit 4 games over .500 (through 84 games), are 11 games behind the Yankees, and 2 games behind a wild card spot. While starting pitching has worse and hitting has barely improved (.271/.345/.459 in 2019, .268/.339/.453) the bullpen has been the Red Sox’s main problem. The pen has lost 12 games this year (not including the first game in London because Porcello only pitched ⅓ of an inning), and we are a little over halfway into the season.
Eovaldi could be the closer the Red Sox needed. He was extremely effective in the playoffs out of the pen and his high velocity plays to his advantage. However, it is uncertain whether he can perform to the same level he did in October due to the fact that he is coming back from an arm injury.
A contender usually has two top arms, and several solid guys filling out the rest of the bullpen. Last year, the Sox had Kimbrel (2.74 ERA) and Brasier (1.60 ERA) as their closer and setup man, while Barnes (3.65 ERA), Workman (3.27 ERA), and Velazquez (3.18 ERA) took the earlier innings. In the playoffs, the bullpen was key to their dominance, as Barnes and Brasier posted 1.04 ERAs, and Joe Kelly put up a 0.79 ERA. This year, the Red Sox will need to acquire two solid relievers as soon as possible if they hope to make the playoffs.
Even if Eovaldi proves to be an effective closer, the other arms in the bullpen have been mediocre. While Workman holds a 1.70 ERA, he will not sustain this level of production. His BABIP is .167, which is a little over half the league average (no matter how good a pitcher is at inducing weak contact, his BABIP being below .280 indicates that he is getting lucky). As his luck runs out, his ERA will spike.
Furthermore, Workman is on track to almost double his season high in innings from 2014 when he was a starter and got five days between starts. As we enter the dog days of August, Workman’s fatigue may begin to show. While his strikeout numbers show massive improvement, he has almost doubled his walk rate from last season. A very encouraging sign though, is his 0.24 HR/9. At 30 years old, Workman seems to be entering his best years. While he is a solid player though, the Sox can not rely on Workman down the stretch.
Barnes was supposed to be the closer coming into this season, but after blowing 60% of his saves, is no longer getting appearances in the 9th. Though he is the victim of bad batted ball luck (.373 BABIP) his increased walk and home run rates do not paint a pretty picture of Barnes’s 2019 season. Furthermore, the 29-year old pitcher has never had a very impressive season, and the fact that he has been very ineffective in what is supposed to be one of his prime years does not bode well for Barnes’s future.
Ryan Brasier has a decent 3.41 ERA so far, but it is helped by his .247 BABIP. Three stats that are completely under a pitcher’s control is K/9, BB/9, and HR/9. Brasier does not strike out a batter per inning, walks 2.62 batters every nine innings, and has an alarming 1.57 HR/9 (that’s more than one home run every six innings). He has been serviceable so far, but don’t look for Brasier to continue his production.
The Red Sox farm system is relatively unimpressive, meaning they would have to sacrifice a large amount of their resources for an all-star caliber reliever. There are some of those options available on the market. One of the top options is Pittsburgh lefty Felipe Vazquez. His ERA’s over the last three seasons have been impressive: 1.67, 2.70, 1.80. Though he was helped by good batted ball luck in 2017, he has had slightly bad luck over the last two years. Furthermore, he consistently keeps his HR/9 well under 1, while his K/9 is at a career high(14.14) and his BB/9(2.31) is his lowest since 2015. He sits at 98 mph, and fills the Sox’s desperate need for a lefty. He is under control through 2021 at 5.5 million dollars a year. Boston’s current payroll is a little over $225 million (Spotrac), and Vasquez’s contract would keep them under the $246 million luxury tax penalty. He would put them over the $226 million penalty, but that is unavoidable if the Sox are to make any moves. Though he will cost some of the Red Sox’s best young players, he is a top arm who is entering his prime, and will lead the bullpen for the next three postseason runs.
Perhaps a more realistic option for the Sox is a second tier reliever. Jared Hughes of the Reds is a 33-year old right handed sinkerballer who is signed through the end of this year (2.25M) and has a player option through next year. While Barnes, Brasier, and Hembree are all similar types of pitchers, throwing mid to high 90s with a breaking ball, Hughes’s primary pitch is a sinker that sits at 91 mph. Batters will have to make adjustments to face Hughes, which will make him more effective in the Red Sox pen. He is unlikely to get injured, not missing significant time since he got called up for good in 2013. However, he has been helped by batted ball luck, and has a BABIP under .300(which is league average) in 4 of his last 6 seasons. Even more alarming is the fact that his ERA currently sits above any of his ERAs from 2014-2018, at 3.03, while his average ERA through those seasons is 2.41, despite having great batted ball luck this year (.207 BABIP). His K/9 has dropped to 6.23, while his HR/9 is more than twice his last year’s number, with a 1.04 rate. His K/BB is at 2.40. In comparison, Felipe Vazquez has a 6.11 K/BB this season. Though Hughes is not without his flaws and risks, he is a good option for the Red Sox, as long as his trade price remains low.
The Red Sox cannot afford to waste prospects on an ineffective reliever. One player the Sox should not pursue is Detroit all-star closer Shane Greene. He would be under control through the end of 2020. As of 7/2, Greene has a staggering 0.87 ERA, and is 3rd in the AL in saves with 22. However, his FIP sits at a much less impressive 3.37, likely explained by his insanely good batted ball luck, with a .182 BABIP. Furthermore, his K/9 and BB/9 are almost identical to his last year’s rates, a season in which he posted a 5.12 ERA. There doesn’t seem to be a good excuse for his disastrous 2018 season either, as his BABIP was .311 and his FIP–fielding independent pitching, which estimates what a pitcher’s ERA would be if he had average luck– was 4.61. The only difference in his peripherals between 2018 and 2019 is his HR/9, which is less than half of his previous rate. In the end though, it is evident that Greene is very likely to cost top prospects, but much less likely to perform up to his expectations.
Photo Credit: The Cincinnati Enquirer