Hackett: Come October, Red Sox may need to change their bullpen thinking

Jim Hackett
August 23, 2018 - 11:59 am

Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports

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What have you learned the last three games against Cleveland? No matter how good the Red Sox are (and they’re really good), getting out of the American League will not be easy.

Cleveland has flaws, but watching their ensemble in the late innings Monday and Tuesday night reminded me of a specific championship team: the 2004 Red Sox. Mike Timlin set the standard for what an eighth-inning setup guy should look like when he was in Boston. He was absolutely lights-out. Alan Embree was equally lethal at times, and Mike Myers developed into a very helpful and trusted situational guy. 

Cleveland has that same kind of makeup in their bullpen and, moreover, has Terry Francona, who proved right here in 2004 that he knows how to use it. This just in: the Yankees, Athletics and Astros have rock solid bullpens too. So where does that leave the Red Sox?

The Red Sox bullpen is good and is pitching pretty consistently the last month or so, but as presently constituted is more of a weakness than strength on this championship caliber team. So my question is, why play into a potential weakness? 

Instead, play to your strengths. Since July 12, David Price is 4-0 with a 1.58 ERA, averaging 6 2/3 innings per start. Up until July 12, Price was a weakness on this team, a fatal flaw with a predictable October failure projected. 

However, since then Price has changed his approach completely. He has developed into a consistent strength on this team. And with this bullpen, that specific strength may be better suited being redeployed.  

David Price is a starter, no doubt, and his last six starts have been really good, dominant at times. He deserves to start in the playoffs. He has great stuff, is pitching with purpose, keeping hitters off-balance and has focused and pitched with big balls when he’s had to get out of tough innings. 

He has earned an opportunity to start in the playoffs and to gain postseason redemption, but it may not be what the Red Sox need. Provided Chris Sale is healthy, Price can best help this team in the bullpen.

Think about this scenario: Price stays on his current pace and gives you a solid 6-plus innings in a critical Game 2 or 3 depending on how you slot your playoff starters. Then what? Where do you turn? Right now, I’d say Ryan Brasier is your best bet, maybe Matt Barnes. 

I’d rather turn the game over to Price in the sixth, seventh or eighth than take the ball away from him.

Baseball has changed. These sixth, seventh and eighth innings are absolutely the most critical innings of any game, particularly in October. The bullpen matters more than ever. This is when you need to have your strongest players on display, or whatever advantage you may have gained could crumble and disappear quickly. 

If I’m managing the 2018 Red Sox, I’m managing to win and am unafraid to take some risks. Taking six innings of David Price and spreading that out over multiple games when it’s late and close feels like a smart and calculated risk to me, one worth considering. 

Additionally, it’s been noted plenty of times that Price’s best performances in the postseason have all come out of the bullpen. We saw it last October vs. Houston. However, this has less to do with that. The way Price is pitching of late and with his focus on truly keeping hitters off-balance, I’m actually willing to put his past playoff woes as a starter behind him. 

I think he can do it, but for the 2018 Red Sox it can’t be about him. It has to be about this team’s opportunity and obvious goal to win the World Series. It’s within grasp for the 2018 Red Sox, but this bullpen will need to be fortified in some way to get it done. 

Yes, Eduardo Rodriguez could probably help, and yes, some combination of what they have could get you through, but are you really comfortable with that?
 
There are other factors. This move makes sense only if Chris Sale is healthy, Rick Porcello continues to pitch well and we see more of the Nathan Eovaldi we saw in his first two starts. If that’s the case, then moving Price to the bullpen only makes you stronger. 

We have five weeks to watch this play out. The consistency from Porcello and Eovaldi along with a successful return from Rodriguez could make this a less risky move. Either way, with the bullpen the way it is, this has to be a consideration. All hands on deck. 

In the last week we’ve seen Ryan Brasier, Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree, Hector Velazquez, Brandon Workman and Drew Pomeranz all work within the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. 

That looks like a team searching for answers, and Price could be that answer. September will certainly be interesting, and how this all shakes out in October may not be totally solved even by Oct. 1. Stay tuned…

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