Taking a stab at what's going on with this Red Sox bullpen

Rob Bradford
March 21, 2019 - 10:19 pm

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Seven relievers pitched for the Red Sox Thursday night. Yet it was one, Colten Brewer, whose voice summed up this relief-pitching situation the best.

"There's always the anxious thing. I'm ready to know as soon as possible," Brewer said. " Whatever decision they make they're the World Series champions, they have a reason behind everything."

Fair enough. But uncovering those decisions and the reasons that lead to them remain a bit hazy with one week until Opening Day ... World Series champs or not.

Before the game at JetBlue Park Red Sox manager Alex Cora did surmise that he had three spots in his bullpen that were still up for grabs when it came to constructing a roster for the March 28 game in Seattle. That initially kicked off a flurry of projections on social media, while then making the appearances of Hector Velazquez, Darwinzon Hernandez, Matt Barnes, Tyler Thornburg, Brewer, Marcus Walden and Durbin Feltman appear appreciably more important than most of the Grapefruit League outings previously turned in.

So, with the Red Sox slated to carry eight relievers for Opening Day, let's start with our best guess as to who they might be:

Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Brian Johnson, Heath Hembree, Brewer, Bobby Poyner, Thornburg and Brandon Workman.

Here is what led us to the list ...

- Barnes looked like a lock-down closer Thursday night, striking out the side thanks in large part to a vicious breaking ball. And, yes, he wasn't tipping his pitches anymore.

"That was good," Cora said. "Breaking ball was a lot better. Forget about whatever he found, the breaking ball was the best one he’s thrown here in spring training. It was 12 to 6. The other one was a little more slurvy. So, that had to do too with him getting hit. Stuff-wise, compared to last year, he’s way ahead. This time last year, his velocity wasn’t there, and he kind of picked it up at the end against the Cubs. I remember that. But he’s in a good spot. As you guys know, he’s a big part of what we’re going to try to accomplish."

- Brasier and Johnson, while slowed in their progression because of a toe infection and illness, respectively, seem to be tracking in a comfortable direction. Johnson is also out of options.

- Hembree, who also is playing catch-up because of the birth of his first child, hasn't been good of late but track record and stuff is good enough for this leap of faith.

- Brewer has been impressive. The former Padre, who had an unremarkable major league introduction last season in 11 relief appearances, has taken the Red Sox' suggestions of pitching more upright and run with it. He has options, but he also has been fairly effective, with this latest go-round representing his best foot forward.

"That was his best one, today, " Cora said. "Very aggressive in the strike zone. His stuff, we’ve been saying all along since he got traded here, 93-94 (mph) cutters with a good breaking ball. You don’t see that often."

- After a bump in the road against the Yankees, Poyner got back on the path he had been for much of spring training, spinning two impressive innings against the Orioles. His mound demeanor, aggressiveness and fearless pitching approach have stood out.

- Thornburg marks where it gets tricky. His stuff was once again good, but the command issues that have been prevalent for much of March remained, with the righty walking three in his inning of work against the Rays. The feeling has been the Red Sox want to prioritize Thornburg's upside, but that doesn't mean there isn't some uneasiness. He is scheduled to pitch Monday, which would have been the day he needed to be released by in order to save on his $1.7 million salary. It seems certain the Sox are planning on keeping the money on their books.

"He was missing, but not much," Cora noted. "Good breaking ball. Good changeups. He got out of that inning, he had to compete, but stuff-wise, you saw it. Tomorrow he’ll throw a bullpen. I think his next one should be Monday in Arizona against the Cubs, and we’ll see. I think the first hitter was good, then he ran into trouble, but at least he was able to get out of it. One thing with him, kind of like with Heath, the fastball usage is very important and the mix and where to use that pitch. Poyner too. We live in an era where, fastballs down, they get hit hard. Upstairs you get foul balls and miss-hits and swings and misses. Everybody knows that. It’s not that I’m just throwing our secret. It’s everybody’s secret. They know that, and he did a good job tonight."

- Workman gets a spot because in large part he is out of options, and there is last year's history of getting velocity back as the weeks ticked along. The righty does though have to find a way to add a few MPHs to a fastball that isn't separating from an above-average curveball.

- Marcus Walden has been on of the Sox' best relievers in camp, standing out again Thursday night with two solid innings in which he gave up just one hit while striking out three. But it seemingly comes down to buying some more time to see what they have in Workman while stashing Walden in the minors. This is a name, however, that could very well flip-flop with Brewer, as well.

- Like Thornburg, Darwinzon Hernandez also walked three in his one inning. The difference is that Hernandez's development can't be risked with fits of wildness in major league stadium while coming out the bullpen. As intriguing as the big lefty is, there is plenty of time for him to find his way into the bigs this season.

"I mean, pure stuff he gets away with mistakes," Cora observed. "That’s the tricky part of this, because big league hitters hit mistakes. But stuff-wise, he can get away with it. So, that’s our job to figure it out."

- Velazquez will be on this team, just probably not on Opening Day. The Red Sox are likely to hold him back for 10 days in the minors and then promote the righty in time for the final game on the season-opening road trip.

- And, of course, there's Feltman. In his third Grapefruit League outing last year's Red Sox third-round pick impressed by tossing a 1-2-3 ninth inning. But, once again, Cora served up the reminder that the excitement regarding the reliever should be tempered a bit ... for now.

"Good," Cora said. "Good breaking ball at the end, but there’s a lot of, it’s not there yet. He’s still learning, and delivery-wise there’s a few things Dana (LeVangie) has noticed. It’s a work in progress, but he’ll be a good one."

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