The Red Sox’s bullpen has picked up a nasty habit of blowing leads in the latter part of Boston’s 2016 season, and everyone already is looking for someone to blame.
Make no mistake, Thursday’s 4-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers did feel like the last straw in many ways. The Red Sox struck for two runs in the top of the eighth to take a 3-1 lead, and in the very next half inning, Junichi Tazawa and Brad Ziegler negated all that by giving up three runs, blowing a lead in the seventh inning or later for the third time in eight days.
But at the end of the day, there’s not necessarily only one person to blame.
The fingers Thursday immediately pointed to Red Sox manager John Farrell, who elected to go with the struggling Tazawa over everyone else in the bullpen. And while it definitely wasn’t the best choice, it’s not as though the choices behind him were much better.
Farrell didn’t go with Ziegler because Ian Kinsler is 5-for-12 against the reliever and Miguel Cabrera is 6-for-10, and both were due up in the eighth. Matt Barnes, who’s been one of Boston’s stronger relievers of late, was unavailable, Fernando Abad hasn’t performed well since being traded to Boston and Heath Hembree hasn’t pitched in a major league game since July 23. Ergo, any reliever Farrell could have gone with to start the eighth was a risk.
In fact, the Red Sox’s bullpen has been a source of instability since last season. The club brought in Dave Dombrowski to help fix things at the end of 2015, but there have been slim pickings on the relief pitching market — and on the pitching market in general — since he became the president of baseball operations. Dombrowski brought in Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith via trades before the start of this season, and both generated a lot of excitement about how good the bullpen could be. But Kimbrel hasn’t been at the top of his game, and Smith underwent Tommy John surgery in May.
The outlook on Boston’s bullpen to start the season was promising, but since April, its bullpen arms have been ravaged by injuries and turned in some rough performances. It started with Smith, and since then, Tazawa, Koji Uehara and Kimbrel have been injured at different points. Tazawa has had a rough time bouncing back since his return, Kimbrel is a power pitcher dealing with recovery from meniscus surgery and Uehara still is down. Those all are issues no one could have expected and that have taken a huge toll on the ‘pen’s performance.
The Red Sox could add Jonathan Papelbon, but the 35-year-old pitcher is declining. There’s an argument to be made that adding help can’t make the bullpen worse, but it’s also wishful thinking to believe Papelbon would come in and play the hero. Boston’s best option would be to call up Joe Kelly, who’s struck out 16 batters and walked just one in his last nine relief appearances in Pawtucket.
Managers deserve to shoulder plenty of blame for the state of their team. No one is denying that. But looking at the Red Sox’s bullpen, there’s a lot that’s out of one single person’s control. Farrell is to blame for calling on Tazawa on Thursday, yes. But the fact that Tazawa and the rest of the bullpen are performing below their expectations falls on the players themselves.
It might seem like a cop-out to deflect blame from any one person, but it simply isn’t that black-and-white. Pitchers will have bad seasons on their own, and Farrell and pitching coach Carl Willis can’t magically make them better if they just don’t have it.
Farrell ultimately will be judged by the Red Sox’s overall performance as the season comes to a close. But as far as the bullpen goes, the struggles there are a team effort.
Thumbnail photo via Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports Images