Marcus Walden

Red Sox bullpen needs help fast, but here's why Craig Kimbrel isn't the solution

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Red Sox bullpen needs help fast, but here's why Craig Kimbrel isn't the solution

BOSTON -- Craig Kimbrel isn't the answer.

The Red Sox decided not to devote major resources to their All-Star closer this winter, and I don't blame them. He showed the early stages of decline in 2018 and spending $50 million on that position is bad business.

While there's an argument to be made that the stars have aligned for an imperfect reunion -- Kimbrel remains unsigned, and if you haven't noticed, Shelley Winters is currently breast-stroking through their capsized bullpen -- the Red Sox should be able to do better through the trade market than take a chance on a reliever who hasn't pitched since October.

That they need legitimate relief help is officially impossible to ignore. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski seems to have a blind spot for that part of the roster, which cost his Tigers back in 2013 when DavidOrtizDavidOrtizDavidOrtiz! was hitting an ALCS grand slam, and probably should've cost his Red Sox last year, except the starters raced to the rescue in October.

The "reliable" quartet of Matt Barnes, Brandon Workman, Marcus Walden, and Ryan Brasier suddenly feels more like the Barnes-Workman duo, and even that depends on the day. On Tuesday, Brasier took the heat for a 7-5 loss to the Indians that's easily the worst of the year. The Red Sox blew a 5-2 lead in the ninth, which may leave some fans wishing for a Kimbrel reunion, but which hasn't shaken the confidence of manager Alex Cora in his closer by committee approach, to exhume a ghastly phrase.

"No," Cora said. "We feel we've done an outstanding job so far, so nothing is going to change right now."

Perhaps the "right now" leaves an opening, because his bullpen is floundering.

David Price deserved the win after six shutout innings, but Walden scuffled in the eighth, which necessitated the use of Barnes a frame earlier than Cora would've preferred. Walden allowed two runs and left the tying run on second, but Barnes stranded it there in the exact kind of outing Cora had noted in his pregame media session that he hoped to avoid.

"When we had to bring him in for two outs, that was it," Cora said after. "Like I've been saying all along, we've got to take care of him."

Walden recorded the save vs. Houston in his last appearance, but he's only a week removed from blowing a save against the Blue Jays in a game the Red Sox rallied to win after virtually every reliever handed back the lead.

They weren't so lucky against the Indians. Brasier went homer-walk-homer to lead off the ninth while exhibiting negligible command, in a clear departure from last season. Particularly dismaying: the tying blast to Greg Allen, who stepped to the plate batting a robust .087.

"You guys see it. Obviously, I see it," Brasier said. "I've just got to get back to almost the basics. I'm not used to throwing a lot of pitches and getting behind in counts. That's a big part of my game, getting ahead of guys and trying to get weak contact. I had a little stretch where I was starting to get it back, but didn't have it tonight."

The limitations of pitching without a last line of defense became apparent when rookie Travis Lakins was asked to staunch the bleeding. Making just his fourth appearance in the big leagues, Lakins could not throw a strike in a 5-5 game. He walked three and allowed a hit to the right-field fence that Mookie Betts probably should've caught, but it scored the winning runs.

And that brings us back to Kimbrel. For him to rejoin the Red Sox at this point would feel like a capitulation by both sides. The Red Sox are the one team that could've signed him all winter without forfeiting a draft pick, and they declined. Kimbrel, meanwhile, will be free to sign with anyone without compensation once the draft starts on Monday. For either side to blink now would be an admission that they screwed up the last seven months.

If Kimbrel's only going to command a one-year deal at this point, he'd probably prefer it be elsewhere just out of pride. 

The Red Sox, meanwhile, would need to execute an abrupt about-face if they suddenly decided to commit multiple years to him when they've been intent on not blowing past the highest $246 million luxury tax threshold.

They're better off pursuing trade candidates like Sean Doolittle, Will Smith, or Jake Diekman than reuniting with Kimbrel, though at this point we shouldn't be picky, because they need to do something.
 
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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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Highlights of Red Sox' 6-5 win over the Blue Jays

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Highlights of Red Sox' 6-5 win over the Blue Jays

FINAL SCORE:  Red Sox 6, Blue Jays 5 (13 innings)

IN BRIEF: Rookie Michael Chavis' 10th home run gave the Red Sox a 6-5, 13-inning victory over the Blue Jays in Toronto on Wednesday night after the Jays had rallied to tie it twice, once in the ninth and again in the 12th after a Mookie Betts' homer had put Boston ahead. BOX SCORE

RED SOX RECORD: 26-23

HIGHLIGHTS:

3rd inning:
Moreland singles to center, scoring Bradley Jr. (who had been hit by a pitch, moved to second on a groundout and to third on a wild pitch) (1-0, BOS).

Bogaerts singles to right, scoring Betts (who had walked, moved to second on Moreland single and stole third) (2-0, BOS).

4th inning:
Guerrero Jr. homers to center off Porcello on a 2-1 pitch (2-1, BOS).

7th inning:
Maile draws a bases-loaded walk off Workman, scoring Galvis (who had singled and moved to third on Drury's double) (3-2, BOS).

8th inning:
Devers homers to left off Law on a 1-1 pitch (4-2, BOS). 

Smoak homers to right off Barnes on a 2-2 pitch (4-3, BOS).

9th inning:
Pinch-hitter Jansen singles to right, scoring Drury, who had doubled to center (4-4).

12th inning:
Mookie Betts homers to center off Biagini on a 3-1 pitch (5-4, BOS).

Tellez homers to center off Hembree on a 2-1 pitch (5-5).

13th inning:
Chavis homers to center off Cordero on a 1-2 pitch (6-5, BOS).

UP NEXT:

@Blue Jays, Thursday, 12:37 p.m., NESN
@Astros, Friday, 8:10 p.m. NESN
@Astros, Saturday, 7:15 p.m., FOX

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