Chris Sale never was a real problem. Neither was the Boston Red Sox’s offense.
The bullpen, well, that’s a different story.
There were a bunch of reasons why the defending World Series champions started the season slow, stumbling to an 11-17 record before winning 11 of their next 13 games to surpass the .500 mark and pull to within an earshot of the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees in the American League East. Most of them proved fixable, as Sale has returned to being a legitimate ace and Boston’s offense is back to being among Major League Baseball’s best.
But manager Alex Cora was offered a harsh reminder Tuesday night after Sale’s brilliant, 17-strikeout performance that the Red Sox still have one flaw that could derail Boston’s chances of repeating in 2019.
Sale departed after seven innings in Boston’s series opener against the Colorado Rockies at Fenway Park, having thrown 108 pitches (74 strikes) and put the Red Sox in position to win their sixth straight despite surrendering a two-run home run to Nolan Arenado in his final frame. The problem was six outs stood between the Red Sox and the finish line, and Boston’s bullpen wasn’t up to task.
Brandon Workman allowed a two-run homer to Charlie Blackmon in the eighth inning. And while the Red Sox rallied to tie the score 4-4 in the bottom of the inning when Mitch Moreland delivered a pinch-hit, RBI single, Ryan Brasier flopped in the 11th, issuing a pair of walks before Mark Reynolds knocked in the eventual game-winning run with a single to center field. The Red Sox fell 5-4.
Now, it’d be foolish to write off the Red Sox’s chances of raising another championship banner based on one raw night in mid-May. After all, Boston’s bullpen was considered a pain point for much of 2018, only to emerge as a strength in the postseason, thanks in large to the performance of a few relievers still in tow.
But it’d be just as foolish to turn a blind eye on the possibility that this year’s relief corps might prove problematic in Boston’s quest to repeat. There’s no Craig Kimbrel and no Joe Kelly, and the volatility of guys like Brasier, Heath Hembree, Colten Brewer and, to an even greater extent, Tyler Thornburg is too glaring to ignore.
Even Workman, as he showed Tuesday night, is prone to an occasional stinker, leaving Matt Barnes as the only trusted member of Boston’s bullpen, unless, of course, you’re convinced Marcus Walden will continue to save the Red Sox’s keisters by pitching at a level that far exceeds his track record.
Let’s not confuse identifying deficiencies for overreacting. The Red Sox’s strengths — namely their offense — are strong enough, in most cases, to compensate for their weaknesses. But Boston undoubtedly could use reinforcements in its bullpen. Tightrope acts like Tuesday’s extra-inning defeat only magnify the issue, and another impact arm or even a proven left-handed specialist would go a long way toward stabilizing the ship.
The Red Sox, for instance, don’t have a single southpaw in their bullpen, forcing Cora to rely on Workman in the eighth inning Tuesday night against Blackmon, a left-handed hitter batting .337 (31-for-92) with a 1.049 OPS against right-handers and .260 (20-for-77) with an .816 OPS versus lefties this season. The result was rather predictable — just like this season’s fate if the Red Sox don’t make a move or strike gold in the form of one of their relatively unknown quantities, like Walden or a prospect currently down on the farm.
To be fair, Boston’s bullpen hasn’t bottomed out, ranking 10th in the majors in ERA (3.98), 11th in FIP (3.96) and seventh in WHIP (1.21). And sure, the Red Sox’s other problems worked themselves out. Who’s to say the same thing won’t happen with the bullpen in the long run?
Banking on the ‘pen requires far more wishful thinking than believing in Sale and/or the Red Sox’s offense during their respective rough patches, though, as there was enough history with the latter two to suggest a bounce-back was in order, whereas Boston’s batch of relievers leaves much to be desired.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images