Bullpen on Parade: What is going on with the Red Sox relievers?

By Sterling Pingree

The Red Sox are 74-33, their best record since 1946 and currently 5.5 games ahead of the New York Yankees. Sale is having a Cy Young season, Mookie and JD are both playing with that MVP swagger and the rest of the order has been relentless all season long. There’s not much to gripe about on the surface but lingering on the horizon is a potential Achilles heel just beyond the right field fence.

Two months ago I broke down how Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly were having seasons that compared favorably to that of marquee closer Craig Kimbrel. At the time, mid-June, Kelly was even getting All-Star buzz. Since that time, Kelly has fallen off of a cliff and is having a hard time throwing strikes. After a couple of rough-ish outings, Barnes seems to have found his rhythm again.

However, the decline of Kelly should raise a lot of concern because it exposes a dirty secret about Boston’s bullpen and that is that it is not particularly deep aside from Kimbrel and perhaps Barnes. How thin have things become? Mid-season callup Ryan Brasier got tasked with pitching the 7th inning Friday night against Minnesota with a 2-0 lead. Ryan Brasier has been solid since coming up from Pawtucket but it should be noted that this is a 30-year old rookie, whose only big league experience came with the Angels, IN 2013! (I wish you could capitalize numbers, because I sure would have here.) The list of arms that manager Alex Cora trusts in a hold situation is down to Ryan Brasier and………….. Tyler Thornburg? Dave Dombrowski has made some great trades since coming to Boston (Sale & Kimbrel) but his efforts to bolster the bullpen (Carson Smith anybody?) have gone by the wayside and for reasons I don’t understand, they haven’t even attempted to fill those vacated spots. The lingering injuries of Thornburg and Smith have really set this team back because they’ve been waiting for these guys to finally get healthy and have an impact but that just doesn’t seem like it’s going to ever happen. We are witnessing Thornburg’s best and perhaps last chance to contribute to the Red Sox while Smith recovers from slamming his glove down in May. In no other sport besides the NBA would a player be injured for two seasons and not be replaced by now.

There aren’t a lot of options left on the market as we approach Tuesday’s 4pm trade deadline, but I expect more names will emerge as we have a record crop of lousy teams in baseball who SHOULD be selling. If there are any reliable arms, or at this point even competent-veteran arms available, the Red Sox need to be buyers because having a weak bullpen could spell disaster in October. The Yankees bullpen is a strength and then they added Zach Britton. The Indians owe much of their recent success to their pen but even the Tribe added a big-time arm when they traded for Padres closer Brad Hand.

There is an outside shot for the Red Sox to add a relief pitcher because they don’t have the minor league capital to trade for a big piece, they don’t want to take on too much salary because of how dangerously close they are the luxury tax threshold and there just might not be anyone else available on the market. However, if someone does become available, Dombrowski has to make a move, even if it means moving a piece from the Major League level.

Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.