There has been much consternation, and dare I say some gnashing of teeth, about the state of the Boston Red Sox bullpen on the doorstep of the 2019 season. In its annual positional power rankings, FanGraphs has their bullpen ranked a measly 27th — with the post’s author, the esteemed Dan Szymborski, admitting his confusion as to the team’s master plan for its pen. His own projection system, ZiPS, figures Boston’s bullpen to accumulate just 4.7 WAR, compared to a projected 7.9 WAR for Yankees relievers.
Certainly, there are questions about the team’s bullpen, given the departure of one of the game’s best relievers over the last five years, Craig Kimbrel, and one of the team’s most reliable late-inning arms, Joe Kelly, with nary an acquisition intended to replace either.
The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh recently wondered whether the Sox had a price to pay for complacency, pointing out Sox relievers on opening day will have only 15 combined saves among them. Although he acknowledges the save as somewhat of an arbitrary stat, he points out the collection of saves generally falls to relievers of some pedigree, of which the Red Sox are currently bereft.
While these are all valid concerns, there is some reason to believe in Dombrowski’s approach to the bullpen.
First, there is at least some reason to believe in the team’s top remaining reliever, Matt Barnes, taking a step forward. While Barnes’ ERA was an unspectacular 3.65 in 2018, his FIP, generally considered a more predictive statistic, was a nifty 2.71. He also struck out a career high 14 batters per nine, thanks in part to his leaning heavily on a nasty curve, that he threw harder than he ever had before, averaging 84.6 mph, nearly 4 mph faster than the year before. ZiPS projects Barnes to pitch to a 3.54 ERA/3.38 FIP combo, which doesn’t scream “elite,” but given the adjustments Barnes seemed to make last season, there’s the possibility his projection doesn’t give enough credit to his recent performance.
Thornburg has thrown only 24 major league innings over the past two seasons, and in the little time he has worked he has been unimpressive, with a 6.04 FIP in those 24 innings last year. Before his injury prior to the 2017 season, though, Thornburg was an excellent pitcher striking out 12 per nine with a 2.15 ERA and 1.9 WAR for the Brewers in 69 innings in 2016. It’s that season that convinced Dombrowski to trade Travis Shaw after his breakout season for Thornburg.
Suffice it to say, the return on that transaction has yet to be realized, and the projections for 2019 don’t look great either (4.86 ERA/4.96 FIP), but Thornburg is only 30, and was very recently a very good pitcher. He threw each of his pitches about a mile an hour slower last year than he did in his breakout season, but if he finds some of that missing velocity, there’s reason to believe he has it in him to recapture some of that past success.
One thing that hasn’t been brought up much about the Sox pen, if at all, is the talent that has yet to arrive. To wit, there are three power arms at three different levels in the minors, all of whom have the potential to be impactful power arms in the pen.
Perhaps the one nearest to the majors is also potentially the most exciting. Although he hasn’t thrown a pitch above AA, Darwinzon Hernandez was on the cusp of making the roster out of spring training. According to FanGraphs evaluators Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel, Hernandez has a 70-grade fastball that sits 94-97 and tops out at 99 mph. In 2018 at High A, the 22-year-old struck out 11 per nine in 101 innings, good for a 3.56 ERA/3.17 FIP. He walked too many batters (5.3 BB/9), but he is nearly major league ready, and in their top prospect writeup for FanGraphs, McDaniel and Longenhagen spoke highly of Hernandez, suggesting “his stuff is on par with many of the best relievers in baseball.”
A 24-year-old at AAA, Lakins also seems on the doorstep of the big league club, and he pitched to a solid 2.61 ERA/3.41 FIP and 9.9 K/9 in 38 innings at AA, before improving to a 1.65 ERA/2.60 FIP in 16 innings at AAA, while retaining nearly all his strikeouts and trimming his walks. Longenhagen and McDaniels have both his fastball, cutter, and curve at above average, with the chance for the curve to tick up to plus. Lakins sits 92-94, topping out at 96, and there’s a chance he turns a sub-par changeup into an average pitch, which would give him a rare four-pitch mix for a reliever.
In their Sox prospects review, Longenhagen and McDaniel wrote, “If forced to pick one prospect from the 2018 draft to throw a big league inning tomorrow, we might pick Feltman…” They hang a 70 grade on Feltman’s fastball, which sits 94-97 and tops out a 99 mph, and a 60 grade on his slider, calling the two an “electric” combination. Feltman saw limited action after the draft last season, but in three A ball stops, his ERA never topped 2.57 and he struck out better than 10 per nine.
The Red Sox appear poised to enter the 2019 season relying heavily on continued success from Barnes, Ryan Brasier, and Heath Hembree. Brian Johnson, Brandon Workman, and Colten Brewer also made the opening day roster. While this collection of arms doesn’t exactly inspire a wagonload of confidence, it seems likely the Sox front office believes they can at least hold down the fort until reinforcements arrive. With the signing of Nathan Eovaldi, the team showed they have a keener interest in investing in starting pitching than building a bullpen with unfamiliar pieces, or paying for a proven closer who is on the wrong side of 30 in Craig Kimbrel. Having used Eovaldi effectively out of the bullpen in the playoffs, the team has the option of deploying him again as a multi-inning threat, though there doesn’t appear to be anyone immediately available to replace him in the rotation should they choose to do so.
More likely the team will look to make an early- to mid-season call-up of one of its top power arms, perhaps in line with what the Phillies did last year with Seranthony Dominguez, who spent only 11 games in the minors before becoming an impact arm at the back of their bullpen. Should any of the relievers Boston is currently relying on falter, there appear to be no less than three solid options, with the distinct possibility that all three could see major league action before the end of the year. Rather than rely on risky three-year deals for “proven” relievers, Dombrowski seems to have some confidence the team can build a bullpen from within, or trade its way out of a jam if it can’t.Next post: Analysing the 2019 Predictions and Projections
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