Trying to make sense of this Red Sox bullpen so far

Rob Bradford
March 10, 2019 - 11:21 pm

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Another day, more questions about the Red Sox bullpen.

Alex Cora is putting a brave face on with about 2 1/2 weeks until Opening Day in Seattle, but there has to be some uneasiness when it comes to trying to have his relievers hit the ground running. Sunday offered little in the way of clarity or peace of mind for the Red Sox manager.

Forget what Rick Porcello did in his Grapefruit League debut, giving up a pair of wind-aided homers in his three innings. That is of little consequence.

Hector Velazquez and Brandon Workman, however, should be put under a different microscope.

The performance put in by Velazquez was reminiscent of a spring training start in Dunedin almost the exact same time last year. Unimpressive and not really resembling a major league pitcher. This time it was the Rays who torched the righty, touching him up for four runs on six hits over two innings.

The good news for the Sox is that after that stinker against the Blue Jays last March he rebounded just enough to make the Opening Day roster, going on to continue his evolution as a valuable piece of the Sox’ 2018 puzzle.

But on this team that is looking for some certainty, Velazquez fell back into the pile of unknown uneasiness. There he is joined by Brandon Workman.

Workman came into came a much better-conditioned pitcher than last spring training, showing a fastball that was sitting in the low-90’s, which was about seven MPH better than his previous March. But the velocity has dipped of late, and so has the effectiveness.

This time there were two homers (neither cheapies) in an inning of work. For Workman it's pretty simple: Get the fastball velocity to at least 90 mph and then come in with that hammer of a curveball. Without the heat, however, the whole equation doesn't work.

"Velocity plays," said Cora of Workman. "Hopefully that part of spring training. Somebody told me yesterday the dead arm, hit the wall and then he’ll bounce back. We need that because when he’s throwing the way he did early, 92-93 mph, we need the separation and there are a lot of swings and misses."

Perhaps this is just a lull and Workman will bounce back to his February form. The problem is that there is just way too much room for interpretation when it comes to this bullpen.

They really like Colten Brewer, who walked the leadoff hitter before inducing a double-play and ground out to walk off the mound unscathed. But until there is consistent major league success it's hard to take these important leaps of faith. The same goes for perhaps the best reliever of camp so far, Marcus Walden, who his having another good spring training but still has to prove he can miss big league bats in the regular season.

Perhaps the likes of Darwinzon Hernandez and/or Travis Lakins are pushed to the front of the pack, along the lines of what Bobby Poyner did a year ago. But that still seems sub-optimal considering their current development path. What would make everything easier for Cora and Co. is if the guys the Red Sox were penciling in before camp started -- Tyler Thornburg, Heath Hembree, Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Workman, Velazquez and Brian Johnson -- found their grooves before the plane lands in Seattle. 

This is not how things are trending, however.

There shouldn't be too many red flags when it comes to Barnes and Brasier quite yet, although the combination of Barnes' uneasy first outing and Brasier's infected toe-induced slow start is far from optimum. And we still don't know how Hembree will be bouncing back from his delayed start or the 2018 workload.

Thornburg? They are going to give him every opportunity to find the upside they traded for two years ago, especially considering the righty is flashing a mid-90's fastball. But with what is needed with this bullpen -- without Craig Kimbrel, Joe Kelly and Steven Wright  (at least until mid-June) -- the Red Sox simply can't afford to ride the kind of roller coaster Thornburg has taken them on.

There are other options waiting in the wings. Jenrry Mejia. Poyner. Zach Putnam (who is nursing an injured hamstring). Erasmo Ramirez. Or maybe the tall lefty Josh Taylor, who has looked in command when getting his chances.

There's still time to figure this thing out, but that doesn't mean there shouldn't be some urgency once Monday's off-day is done. It's getting to be about that time.