Red Sox ‘Concerned’ About Matt Barnes’ Slump, So What Are Their Options?

Is there a change to be made while Barnes gets right?

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Matt Barnes, in his own words, picked the wrong time to start sucking, and as Alex Cora acknowledged, the Red Sox are concerned.

The Sox have won their last two games, including a way too close for comfort 11-9 victory over Minnesota on Tuesday night at Fenway Park. Those two wins, however, have come in spite of brutal results from Barnes, their All-Star closer. After blowing a save Monday afternoon versus Texas by allowing two hits on four runs, Cora pulled Barnes in the ninth inning Tuesday night after he allowed a home run to Josh Donaldson while surrendering a pair of walks.

Luckily for the Red Sox, Garrett Whitlock bailed them out Monday, while Hansel Robles saved the day in the series opener against the Twins. Barnes believes he’ll get better — and soon — but he also is putting faith in Cora and pitching coach Dave Bush if they decide to make changes in the back end.

“Whatever (Cora and Bush) want to do that they feel is the right decision for the team to help us win ballgames, I’ll be completely on board with. That’s the No. 1 goal right now, and I’ll say that over and over,” Barnes told reporters following Tuesday’s win.

After committing to Barnes as the closer Tuesday afternoon, Cora might already be changing his tune.

“We’re concerned, yeah we are,” Cora admitted. “Obviously, we’re not going to pick on the guy, but we have to make adjustments, whatever it is. We’ve been talking about it. Just like (Monday) we went to certain guys in certain situations, (Tuesday) we did the same thing. At the end of day, it’s about winning ballgames. It’s not about saves or (pitcher) Ws. It’s the Red Sox win or the Red Sox lose, and tonight, we won again.”

That is certainly the good news for the Red Sox. However, it hasn’t been pretty, especially with Barnes on the bump. He’s allowed 10 earned runs on 11 hits in his last eight appearances, his season ERA ballooning from 2.25 on Aug. 4 to 3.91 following Tuesday night’s mess.

Boston can’t afford to keep running this version of Barnes out there in high-leverage situations. Not when the Sox sit 6 1/2 games back of the first-place Rays and four behind the surging Yankees, who have won 11 in a row. Oakland is also very much on Boston’s heels for the second wild-card spot.

The issue, though, is trying to find an answer to the question of who exactly would replace Barnes in the closer role, even in the short term.

It seems like Whitlock would be the best answer, as he picked a perfect time for his gutsiest appearance of the season Monday vs. the Rangers. He’s been Boston’s best, most consistent reliever basically all season. However, the Red Sox have made it clear with their words and how they’ve used Whitlock that they’re not exactly sold on using him on consecutive days. The bulk (22 of 36) of Whitlock’s games this season have been on at least three days of rest. That’s not exactly conducive to closing. Moving Whitlock to the closer role might actually reduce his value to the Red Sox bullpen, as he might be best used in a multi-inning role, as he’s logged more than one inning in 26 of his appearances.

Adam Ottavino would probably get consideration, too. Boston used him to close out a win in Toronto earlier this month, so it’s not a totally foreign idea. Can he throw enough strikes, though? Ottavino has been especially erratic lately, walking at least one in his last five appearances, proof that command remains a slight issue for the veteran right-hander. The obvious hope is he’d regain the form he showed for the first half of the summer when he allowed just three runs in 15 games from the end of May until the beginning of July.

Josh Taylor deserves mention, but as the only truly dependable lefty at Cora’s disposal right now, it probably makes the most sense to leave him be.

A completely outside-the-box option? Garrett Richards. It feels unlikely for a multitude of reasons, one of the biggest being it also reduces his value as a multi-inning guy. But his stuff clearly plays up in the shorter bullpen spurts, as evidenced by his 10 strikeouts in eight relief innings since being sent to the ‘pen. However, he’s been a starter for almost his entire career and has no experience with high-leverage, late-inning relief work. Or maybe, just maybe, Richards goes back to the rotation and Tanner Houck goes to the bullpen?

Then there’s Robles, who has been a closer before, which Cora noted Tuesday night as part of the reason the Sox felt comfortable bringing him in to clean up Barnes’ mess. He also throws very, very hard, which certainly helps. That being said, we’ve already seen the worst of Robles since being acquired from Minnesota, as he’d allowed 20 base-runners in 8 1/3 innings before Tuesday night’s save. But let’s not discount the fact he came in and shut the door, striking out a pair to literally save the Sox.

The best solution for the Red Sox, at least at the moment, is to put themselves in a position where they don’t need to call on Barnes — or anyone else — to hold a one-run lead in the final frame. That looked like it was going to be the case Tuesday night before things unraveled on the bullpen in the middle innings — before Barnes even contemplated having to work — further illustrating the dilemma Boston currently faces.

So, as Cora said, the Red Sox might have to piece some things together in the meantime. Whether that means someone not named Matt Barnes gets the ninth inning obviously is the big decision to be made. However, the best long-term plan is to just hope the right-hander figures things out and gets back on track.

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