Red Sox

With bullpen uncertainty, Red Sox have rare, enviable opportunity

With bullpen uncertainty, Red Sox have rare, enviable opportunity

BOSTON -- Everyone might be missing the boat when it comes to the inexperience of the Red Sox bullpen.


“Without a returning lockdown eighth-inning guy, we’re about settling into some roles as quick as possible,” Sox manager John Farrell said Monday morning, before a 5-3 win over the Pirates on opening day. “There’s going to be a little more matching up right now, before we bridge to [Craig] Kimbrel in the ninth. So you take some of the momentum that certain guys have coming out of spring training throwing the ball.”

Never mind the logic of relying on the hot hand out of spring training, which is debatable. (Joe Kelly’s 98 mph fastball all of a sudden isn’t to be trusted because he looked a little shaky in the Grapefruit League?)

The Sox definitely do need to sort out the bullpen. But what categories they put guys into, and how rigid the roles should become is really the question.

There’s a rare opportunity here.

The Red Sox don’t have a blank canvas, exactly. But they have something closer to it than most teams can find.

Outside of closer Craig Kimbrel this is not a group of established pitchers. Of guys set on doing one thing.

Excellent! Keep it going!

Teach them to be up in the air. Teach them this is what the norm looks like. 

The Sox that way can then push their reliever usage toward a more fluid, more progressive look -- rather than the old closer, set-up, middle relief structures of yore. 

Don't go 0 to 60. Just move carefully away from the old school.

“Really, not any one of those guys had established roles in bullpens prior to this year, or coming into this year,” pitching coach Carl Willis said. “So it’s almost like, you look at who has the hot hand coming out of spring training right now and who’s best equipped. 

“So in saying that, I don’t want to call it inexperience, because those guys have obviously been in the major leagues. But we’ll see how it settles. Certainly, going with the hot hand right now, particularly with [Matt] Barnes and [Heath] Hembree, who have been throwing the ball better . . . lately than a couple of the other guys.”

Settle it, but don’t fully settle it. Leave some ambiguity.

Robbie Ross Jr. said in the middle of the spring this is the first time he ever felt like he’s had a job. Ironically, he’s fallen behind on the southpaw depth chart to start the season.

Barnes started to learn how to be a reliever back in 2014 but last year was the biggest learning experience. Kelly hasn’t been out of the rotation a year yet.

“I think everything in the bullpen I did last year I kind of learned along the way,” Barnes said.

Barnes has done well in jams. With help of a fine Andrew Benintendi catch in left field on Monday — plus a good game plan against the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen for an inning-ending strikeout — Barnes cleaned up a mess in the seventh inning with minimal damage.

Right now, he knows things are up in the air. He said the right thing when asked about the effect of uncertainty on the 'pen.

“A lot of guys have done a lot of different roles,” Barnes said. “Guys will be ready. We’ll stay on our toes.”

The model the Indians famously used in the postseason, using Andrew Miller in whatever inning as the biggest weapon of all, isn’t too reasonable to expect in the regular season. 

Pitchers like routine. Relievers like to know when they’re going to come in. Consistency in preparation helps in a long season. That’s not going to change. 

So find a middle ground.

These roles Farrell speaks of: don’t make it eighth-inning guy.

Make it the sometimes eighth-inning guy or sometimes seventh-inning guy. The high leverage guy. And the other high leverage guy. And so on.

It sounds like the Sox might be thinking the same way.

“I don’t necessarily know that you can put inning roles on it,” Willis said. “When you utilize match-ups and you look at the opposition’s lineup there are times when we are talking about, particularly the seventh and eighth inning, there may be a better match-up with a guy who we deem our eighth inning guy: hey, maybe he’s better in the seventh tonight, because of where are in the order in the seventh. We have that flexibility.”

Keep the flexibility. Expand it. Push it. 

Kimbrel may be resistant to change, but the aw-shucks-just-happy-to-be-here Robby Scotts of the world shouldn’t be. Barnes doesn’t seem to be. Kelly’s new to this.

They can still be molded. Shape this thing the right way rather than rush into a 7-8-9, Junichi Tazawa-Koji Uehara-Craig Kimbrel way of life.

Red Sox, Yankees working to play in London in 2019

Red Sox, Yankees working to play in London in 2019

Mookie Betts and Aaron Judge are about to go global.

Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy on Monday confirmed the Sox are interested to play the Yankees in London during next year's regular season. Bloomberg reported the clubs are nearing an agreement to play two games there in June 2019. Discussions are indeed taking place, but a deal is not done.

MORE - Sox signal they'll keep Swihart, may trade Marrero or Holt

“We would love to participate in a series in London against the Yankees but this is a decision that MLB and the MLBPA will make," Sox CEO Sam Kennedy said.

Bloomberg reported the games would be played at London Stadium, which was the main facility for the 2012 summer Olympics.

MLB has not played any games in Europe before. The Red Sox have made trips before, including to Japan before the 2008 season.


Red Sox signal they'll keep Swihart, may trade Marrero or Holt

Red Sox signal they'll keep Swihart, may trade Marrero or Holt

Blake Swihart’s strong spring seems to have the Red Sox more inclined to deal one of their natural utility infielders, such as Brock Holt or Deven Marrero, rather than Swihart, a converted catcher with high upside who's getting a look in other roles.
"Sounds like they’re holding Swihart to open," a rival executive said. "More likely to move a utility guy."
A true utility guy, that is.


The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo reported Sunday that Marrero has been drawing interest from other teams.

"We do have depth with our middle infielders," Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said Monday. "However, [I] would not get into potential trade discussions."
Swihart, who turns 26 on April 3, is most valuable as a catcher. But he could still be useful in a bench role for the 2018 Red Sox, and a win-now mentality may be the driving force here. (It is possible, as well, that there is nothing available via trade for Swihart that has piqued the Sox’ interest. Marrero or Holt wouldn’t require as much in return.)
The potential drawback is that Swihart won’t grow much if he’s not playing every day -- and in particular, if he's not catching every day. But the Sox may be be at a juncture where they feel his bat is a worthwhile experiment off the bench, at least for this season. They can figure out his future -- and their future at backstop -- later.
"He’s a great athlete," Cora told reporters on Sunday. "We’ve seen it in the batter’s box. It’s not only the results, but the way he’s driving the ball to left field as a left-hander, the quality of at-bats as a right-hander. [On Saturday], as a pinch-hitter, that kid was throwing 99 and he throws a breaking ball and squares a ball up."
Swihart entered Monday with a .283 average in Grapefruit League play, with a .905 OPS and a pair of home runs. But he does not have the infield experience that Marrero or Holt has, and the Red Sox essentially have to carry one of those two to start the year. 
Eduardo Nunez, the temporary replacement for Dustin Pedroia, is coming off a knee injury, and a sure-handed infielder -- Marrero’s glove is particularly good -- is a must. Rafael Devers is still coming into his own at third base. 
Tzu-Wei Lin is available in the minors too, and the Sox could see some redundancy with him, Holt and Marrero. Lin, unlike Marrero, has minor league options remaining. Lin also has some limited outfield experience.
The way the Sox roster looks now, they have two spots available for the three guys: Marrero, Holt and Swihart. Health can change that. Holt, despite being the most veteran of the group, has minor league options remaining, so he theoretically could go to Triple-A to start the season. But if the Sox don't see a role for him on this year's team any way, they'd be wiser trading him, considering he's due to make $2.225 million. It also would be kindest choice for Holt, to let him have an opportunity elsewhere, if one exists.


Swihart has played first base, third base and left field in addition to catching this spring. Perhaps, in time, there will be a way to work Swihart in behind the plate for the Sox. At the least, retaining him would be insurance if Christian Vazquez or Sandy Leon do not perform well offensively.
There was a clear personal-catcher system for the Red Sox in 2017. Leon was Chris Sale’s guy, for example. Manager Alex Cora said he is not taking that approach. As an auxiliary effect, moving away from a personal-catcher system might make it easier for Swihart to receive more time behind the plate, if called on.
"Whoever I feel comfortable with that day behind the plate, he'll catch," Cora told reporters in Florida. "Christian already caught him. Sandy's going to catch him today. And then the next turn, Christian's going to catch him. Everybody's going to work with everybody."