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Red Sox need to pay for some bullpen certainty

Rob Bradford
July 27, 2018 - 1:35 am

After his team's 2-1 loss to the Twins, Alex Cora was asked once again if he thought his Red Sox had enough relief pitching. This time, the answer offered a smidgen of uncertainty. (For a complete recap of the Red Sox' loss, click here.)

"I don’t know. That’s a good question. It’s a tough question," the Sox manager said. "I do feel there are a few guys in that clubhouse that we have to fix. We have to get them back to where they’re supposed to be, and we’ll be fine."

He's not wrong. There are guys in that clubhouse if led to their peak performance, would result in a bullpen that could compete. At least there is potential, which some teams working the phones heading into Tuesday's non-waiver trade deadline don't have the luxury of possessing. 

But this is no time to bank on potential. That is a strategy the Red Sox, in this race against the Yankees, Astros and Indians, simply can't afford to implement. 

It's time to pay for certainty. Sometimes you just have to.

Zach Britton, for instance, represented exactly that.

With all due respect to Dave Dombrowski and Nathan Eovaldi, finding a back-of-the-rotation starter should not have been the priority. Getting the guy you could lean on in the eighth inning -- particularly against left-handed batters -- while sifting through the good and bad of the current bullpen should have been, and should be, No. 1 on the deadline to-do list.

As Cora and Dombrowski have pointed out, it's not as if this group of relievers represents a lost cause. Matt Barnes. Heath Hembree. Ryan Brasier. Tyler Thornburg. Their talents and (for the most part)  production have been good enough leading into Craig Kimbrel. Still, there are too many awkward bumps the road, such as the one cropping up against the Twins. (Hembree and Barnes each gave up a run, failing to hold their team's one-run lead.)

Theo Epstein could have ridden the rest of the way with Mike Timlin, Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen and Javy Lopez in 2007. But he wasn't ready to stake his fortunes on potential. Hence the trade for Eric Gagne. The same went for 2009 when the promise of Daniel Bard was complemented with the late-inning security of Billy Wagner.

Paying for this certainty we speak of can get uncomfortable. It did for the Indians when reeling in Brad Hand and Adam Cimber. The Yankees certainly didn't want to say farewell to the promise of Dillon Tate in the Britton deal. And for the Brewers to give up on underachieving former first-round pick Kodi Medeiros in exchange for Joakim Soria, it probably led to a little uneasiness. Jeurys Familia was someone the A's needed, so they did what it took to get him.

So be it. You have a pretty good idea what Hand, Britton, Soria, Familia are going to deliver, which is the kind of peace of mind those contenders thirsted for. Now it's the Red Sox' turn.

If nothing else the Sox have to find someone who will be the weapon against left-handed hitters Joe Kelly once represented. Maybe Brian Johnson can help. Perhaps even Drew Pomeranz will step into that role down the road. But Thursday night, when Hembree was the go-to guy against lefty hitters Robbie Grossman and Max Kepler to lead off the seventh inning, that doesn't represent the ideal scenario.

But Hembree is the guy against left-handers right now. That's just the Red Sox' lot in life.

There are still plenty of options out there, which is the beauty of this deadline. It's still a buyers' market when it comes to finding decent relief help. But if the Red Sox don't dive into the fray is would just seem wrong. It's no time to leave this thing to chance.

Brian Johnson didn't allow a run over his 5 2/3 innings, putting his ERA at 2.60 over the lefty's last 10 starts. Red Sox starters haven't allowed an earned run in six of the club's last eight games, including five of the last six.

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