Why the Red Sox are ready to roll the dice with this group of relievers

Rob Bradford
March 24, 2019 - 9:08 am

The Red Sox have their Opening Day bullpen.

Matt Barnes. Ryan Brasier. Heath Hembree. Brandon Workman. Brian Johnson, Colten Brewer. Hector Velazquez. Tyler Thornburg.

Thornburg is the highest-paid member of the group at $1.7 million despite not proving to be an effective big leaguer since 2016. Two guys the mix to close games -- Barnes and Brasier -- have a combined two career saves to their credit. Hembree has never been relied on as a consistent late-inning guy. Workman has never seen a full season in the majors. Johnson and Velazquez are more perceived as long men/spot starters than high-leverage options. And Brewer's major league debut last season with San Diego resulted in 11 appearances in which he gave up 10 runs on 15 hits and seven walks.

And you know what? Alex Cora genuinely remains really optimistic about what he has to work with.

"I think stuff-wise, we’re good," Cora said after his team's final Grapefruit League game Saturday. "There are certain guys that obviously they were working on a few things but like I’ve been saying all along, we’ve got guys who have got stuff. Hard throwers, cutters, breaking balls, sinkers. Now it’s up to me and the coaching staff to identify the matchups and use them. I’m very comfortable."

The manager added, "One thing we found out towards the end, that although the people outside our world think we’re short on pitching, we’re not, and we’re going to be fine."

It doesn't take much to surface examples why relying on projections can be dangerous. The five aces didn't work out in 2015 even though the case was being made for each that next-level performances were on the horizon. And the idea that each of the Red Sox position players was going to evolve to help make up for the absence of David Ortiz in 2017 was off base, as well. In both cases, the Sox were forced to loop back and pay for certainty.

Because of luxury tax concerns and pending expiring contracts certainty has not been invested in this time around.

Still, the Red Sox and Cora are making their case this can work.

Barnes was presented a piece of paper by the coaching staff this spring training showing that he actually pitched in tougher spots than last year's closer Craig Kimbrel in 2018. That is something. As is the kind of stuff the righty flashed in striking out the side in his final Grapefruit League game.

After an infected toe delayed his spring training progression Brasier came on in the final few weeks of spring training to look like the same guy. That is also something.

Hembree and Workman? They were really up and down throughout March but their stuff and history allow for this leap of faith. Hembree was certainly a valuable piece for much of 2018, finishing up strong in the World Series. And Workman finally got his fastball up to the low-90's in his final spring outing, immediately making an above-average curveball look like the weapon the Red Sox are counting on.

Brewer was told by the Red Sox to pitch more upright. That evidently was something of importance as the alteration seemed to have some impact. While all we have to go by are those 11 big league outings from last year, it's easy to see why the Sox are riding with Brewer on the major league roster despite the option of sending him to the minors.

Johnson and Velazquez? They seemed good enough to be relied on to at least fill the roles performed in 2018. 

Thornburg is the wild card. The stuff is there. Late-spring training adjustments were made. But that three-walk outing Thursday night didn't exactly pepper everyone with optimism. There is simply too much upside not to give the righty a whirl. If he does click along the lines of what we saw in Milwaukee three seasons ago the face of this whole equation changes significantly.

There are four Yankees relievers who make more than the combined salaries of this group the Red Sox are carting out but are still carrying some anxiety thanks to Dellin Betances' injury. Chaz Roe is the only Rays relief pitcher making more than $1 million. The Blue Jays are relying on the usually unreliable Ken Giles to close, while Baltimore has stripped its bullpen clean. The point is that the Red Sox aren't alone in their relief-pitching uncertainty. The difference is that no other team is rolling the dice with so much of a commitment to so many other corners of the roster.

Who knows? Maybe we're talking Darwinzon Hernandez, Travis Lakins or Durbin Feltman in June making all of this Opening Day debate seem silly.

But you've got to start somewhere and, like it or not, this is the group the Red Sox are choosing to kick things off with.