John Tomase

Doolittle, Smith among closers Red Sox could pursue as MLB trade season begins

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Doolittle, Smith among closers Red Sox could pursue as MLB trade season begins

We know this much about Dave Dombrowski -- when he diagnoses a problem, he acts.

He made one of the most consequential moves of last season in late June, acquiring right-handed slugger Steve Pearce from the Blue Jays to address a deficiency against left-handed pitching. The acquisition barely merited mention outside of the transactions agate, but all Pearce went on to do was win World Series MVP.

June doesn't arrive until next week, but Dombrowski is already in fix-it mode. He typically gives his teams 40 games to sort out what's working and what isn't, and we passed that mark two weeks ago. With the Red Sox still trying to extricate themselves from a poor start — they're 5.5 games out of first place and a game and a half up on the Indians for the second wild card spot — a clear need has emerged in their bullpen.

The stats show the Red Sox with the most wins (15) and the sixth-lowest bullpen ERA in baseball (3.76), but don't let the numbers fool you. They are an arm short.

Matt Barnes could be an All-Star, Brandon Workman has been borderline unhittable, and veteran rookie Marcus Walden qualifies as a revelation, but they need help.

Ryan Brasier has not maintained last year's success, particularly against left-handed hitters. Heath Hembree has a propensity to allow home runs. Tyler Thornburg and Colten Brewer have been varying degrees of disastrous.

We've already argued that the next target should be a pitcher with closing experience, which would make the ninth inning less fraught after Barnes takes on the heart of the order in the seventh or eighth. But who will be out there? Here are three names.

Start with Sean Doolittle. The Nationals left-hander is a two-time All-Star, including last year, and has closed for parts of four seasons. He was having a tremendous season until imploding in his last outing and allowing four runs while doubling his ERA in a loss to the Mets. He's still 3-1 with a 3.43 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 21 innings.

The Nationals are once again grossly underachieving — only a game and a half ahead of the Marlins, who aren't even trying — and it's a foregone conclusion that they will be sellers come July. The 32-year-old Doolittle represents a prime trade asset. He's making $6 million this year and has a $6.5 million team option for 2020.

He'd solve two problems for the Red Sox, being able to close and also providing a left-handed power arm. He lives almost exclusively on a 93-95 mph four-seam fastball, and he's experienced. Add a quirky personality — he has made it his mission to patronize an independent bookstore in every road city, and he hosted Syrian refugees for Thanksgiving — and he'd liven up the Red Sox clubhouse.

Another left-hander to consider is Giants closer Will Smith. The 6-foot-5, 248-pounder is 1-0 with a 2.75 ERA and 12 saves, with 27 strikeouts in 19.2 innings. The impending free agent has limited opponents to a .164 batting average with his fastball/slider mix, and he's particularly tough on left-handers, who own just three singles against him.

The 21-28 Giants have a zero percent chance of reaching the postseason, per baseball-reference, and GM Farhan Zaidi is expected to make virtually everyone available, including ace Madison Bumgarner. Smith will certainly be on that list.

Shifting to the American League, Tigers closer Shane Greene, a former swingman with the Yankees, owns a league-leading 15 saves and a miniscule 1.29 ERA, though his peripherals (3.80 FIP) aren't as strong. The 30-year-old right-hander has struck out 24 in 21 innings. He's limiting opponents to a .156 average, including .083 on his sinker, which is his bread and butter.

The Tigers just went 0-9 on a homestand, including a sweep by the Marlins that concluded with Greene blowing his first save of the season after a pair of errors, including on what should've been a game-ending double play, produced five unearned runs.

With the Tigers in free fall, Greene figures to be a hot commodity. Whether Dombrowski would deal with his former team is another story. The Red Sox haven't made a trade with Detroit since acquiring Rick Porcello in 2014, before Dombrowski took the reins, and there were some hard feelings in 2016 when the Tigers declined to change a 1 p.m. start time in Detroit after the Red Sox had played the previous night in Baltimore.

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Ryan Weber offers Red Sox a reminder that lighting up a radar gun isn't everything

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Ryan Weber offers Red Sox a reminder that lighting up a radar gun isn't everything

The Washington Post's Dave Sheinin this week took a fascinating deep dive into baseball's toxic love affair with velocity, the force at the root of the game's decline as entertainment.

With more pitchers than ever throwing at least 95 mph, hitters are left with two choices: marry launch angle with exit velocity in the hopes of leaving the park, or find a new line of work. Pitchers roll off a similarly homogenous assembly line, with one 6-foot-4 reliever after another throwing gas. There doesn't seem to be much middle ground.

Then there's Ryan Weber.

The 28-year-old baby-faced right-hander did not reach the big leagues on the strength of his arm so much as the dexterity of his fingers. He breaks 90 mph with his fastball about as often as most of us do on the highway.

He's a throwback to a time when baseball made room for pitchers who didn't max out the radar gun, and rotations craved variety: the flame-throwing right-hander, followed by the crafty lefty, followed by the innings-eater, followed by the forkball specialist, etc. . .

That would seemingly crowd out someone like Webber, who instead relies on the precise location of his sinker, changeup, and curveball. And it's not like opportunities have been plentiful for the former Brave, Mariner, and Ray. Since being drafted in the 22nd round of the 2009 draft by Atlanta, Weber has appeared in only 28 games.

He opened this season as Triple-A depth, and the Red Sox summoned him after injuries to Nathan Eovaldi and David Price thinned the rotation's ranks.

Following three solid relief outings, Weber received the call to start on Thursday against the Blue Jays, where his peculiar set of skills were on full display. Weber reached 90 mph exactly once in 93 pitches. He mostly lived at 86-88 mph with a ton of movement as he worked the corners, stayed out of the middle of the plate, and kept the ball down.

In an age where even accomplished sinkerballers like Rick Porcello feel no choice but to live up in the strike zone, Weber did things his way on Thursday with smashing success. One night after the Red Sox burned through six pitchers in a 13-inning marathon win over the Jays, Weber delivered six innings of one-run ball, limiting the Jays to three hits and striking out four in an 8-2 victory.

"It's different," manager Alex Cora told reporters in Toronto. "It's not that vertical attack, fastballs up, breaking balls down. It's more about pitching east-west and changing speeds. It's like a little bit of old school."

Weber earned his first victory as a starter after spending parts of the last four seasons with the Braves, Mariners, and Rays. If there's one common element to each pitch in his repertoire, it's that nothing is straight. Weber can generate movement to either side of the plate, and he does not let his lack of velocity keep him from throwing front-door two-seamers that start inside to left-handers hitters before zipping back over the corner.

"Just giving the team a chance to win and saving the bullpen was really my main goal," Weber told reporters. "And doing that, I'm excited and proud of what I did."

"Everything felt good," Weber added. "Arm felt great. First win as a starter feels nice."

With Eovaldi making progress in his return from elbow surgery and Price already back in the rotation, the Red Sox hope not to need a rotating fifth starter for much longer. If nothing else, Weber reminded the organization that there's more than one way to be successful, should the need arise again.

"Amazing," Cora said. "He did a good job changing speeds, moving the ball around the strike zone, changing eye level. He can pitch."

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Red Sox bullpen doesn't just need help, it needs a closer to lock down the ninth

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Red Sox bullpen doesn't just need help, it needs a closer to lock down the ninth

It's time to find this Red Sox bullpen a closer.

The starters won't be available to bail anyone out until October, so the Red Sox must consider reinforcements for a relief unit that has carried the load for much of the season, but is already showing signs of wear.

Another viable arm would be nice. Someone who can take the ball in the ninth would be even better.

It's a retrograde solution in light of the plan manager Alex Cora has cultivated since last winter to use his best reliever -- usually Matt Barnes -- when the matchups demand, whether it's the seventh inning, eighth, or ninth. But the team's current personnel simply isn't equipped to sustain this approach.

On Wednesday night in Toronto, the bullpen suffered a slow-motion implosion that cost starter Rick Porcello a victory and increased the pressure on president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski to address what is becoming a glaring need.

Stalwarts Brandon Workman, Barnes, and Marcus Walden combined to allow one run apiece in the seventh, eighth, and ninth, erasing leads of 3-1 and 4-2 and forcing extra innings, where Heath Hembree surrendered yet another tying homer in the 12th before Michael Chavis did his thing and won it with a monster blast in the 13th.

The limitations to Cora's the-ninth-is-just-another-inning approach looked particularly stark when he handed the ball to Walden, a career minor leaguer who has been a revelation, to close out a one-run game. It's one thing for Walden to deliver big outs in fifth or sixth. It's another to do it in the ninth, and he couldn't.

While Cora has pushed the right matchup buttons with Barnes, in particular, it's time to stop pretending this tactic can last an entire season, especially with Ryan Brasier struggling. The Red Sox lack the bodies to mix and match their way through the last three innings, and they should start addressing their problems from back to front, as Wednesday illustrated.

Porcello delivered six outstanding innings, limiting the Jays to one run on just 80 pitches. He left with the Red Sox leading, 3-1.

Then the fun started. Perhaps stung by trying to wring another inning out of Porcello in his last start vs. the Rockies, Cora summoned Workman. Reliable despite lacking the overpowering stuff typical of a late-inning reliever, Workman could not throw his fastball for a strike, and his curveball barely found the top of the zone, either.

He recorded two quick outs and then loaded the bases before walking in a run. He escaped by inducing a grounder to second and muttering to himself in disgust as he left the mound.

On came Barnes for the eighth. The right-hander is asked to fill a role that exists for virtually no other reliever in baseball -- neutralize the heart of the opposing order, wherever, whenever. This time he drew the 2-3-4 hitters, and No. 3 took him deep, Justin Smoak ripping a solo homer that pulled the Jays within a run at 4-3.

On we moved to the ninth, where Walden was asked to record a legitimate save. He wilted, allowing a double, groundout, and game-tying two-run single that forced the squads to play for another hour and a half.

The Red Sox have now blown eight saves, although they technically improved to 19-1 when leading after eight innings.

The issue is how they can make this work all year, especially since so many of their relievers are flawed: Workman struggles to throw strikes and lacks an overpowering fastball to complement his big curveball; Brasier needs a pitch that he can throw soft and away to lefties; Walden can't afford to elevate a slider and is untested; Heath Hembree gives it up when he throws anything other than a fastball. Even Barnes is susceptible to the home run. The rest of the pen could be DFA'd tomorrow with no repercussions.

So, why a closer, or at least someone with closing experience, instead of simply another arm? Because that would allow Cora to mix and match all he wants in the sixth, seventh, and eighth without worrying about the final three outs.

Put another way: he could limit the instances when Workman attempts to close out the Rockies (he succeeded), or Walden tries to secure a one-run win on the road (he did not).

I know what you're thinking: Craig Kimbrel? If the Red Sox had any interest, they'd have signed him months ago. It's hard to imagine changing course now, or that Kimbrel would even be interested, since he's just a couple of weeks away from becoming a true free agent without draft pick compensation attached.

If Kimbrel's not an option, that's OK, because Impact relievers change teams every year. Last season alone, dynamite arms Ryan Pressly (Astros), Brad Hand (Indians), Zack Britton (Yankees) and the controversial Roberto Osuna (also Astros) were dealt.

Start picking through last-place rosters to see who might fit that bill this year, whether it's Royals setup man Jake Diekman, Giants closer Will Smith, or Nationals All-Star Sean Doolittle. All three are lefties, which wouldn't hurt Boston's mostly right-handed staff.

Is this an overreaction to one game? I don't think so. The Red Sox have been dancing on the precipice for a while now, and best to address the issue before they fall.

 

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