After Down Year, Where Do Matt Barnes, Red Sox Go From Here?

The usually steady Barnes was inconsistent in 2021

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In the first half of the 2021 season, Matt Barnes put together a showing that earned him his first MLB All-Star Game selection. But by the time October rolled around, he was on the Boston Red Sox’s bench.

Barnes originally didn’t make the cut for the American League Division Series roster but ended up there after all, taking the place of an injured Garrett Richards. He was tasked with closing out a blowout victory in Game 2 of the series, and while he escaped unscathed, walked two of the six batters he faced.

Such a performance wasn’t enough to earn him a spot in the AL Championship Series, where the Red Sox fell to the Houston Astros in six games.

The Red Sox may not have been confident enough in their typically steady closer to hand him the ball in the postseason, but manager Alex Cora was confident that Barnes will play some sort of role with the team in 2022.

“I think those conversations already started in October, and they’re going to continue in the upcoming days,” Cora said in an end-of-season press conference Monday. “Matt Barnes is very important to our program, to what we’re trying to accomplish. He’s still a really good pitcher. We know that. Obviously it didn’t end up the way we wanted it to. There’s a lot of factors that come into play, including the 10 days, 12 days he was out of the equation because of COVID.

“We talked to (Barnes) in October. There’s a plan in place. We’re going to attack the offseason the right way. I hate to guarantee things, but I know he’ll be very important to what we’re trying to accomplish next year.”

Cora didn’t specifically say what role Barnes will play, though. And based on the messaging from the second half of the season — and what transpired on the field — there’s no reason to assume he’s a lock to close.

Barnes posted a 2.68 ERA with 11 earned runs through 37 innings from April 4 to July 4. But after the All-Star break, he looked like a completely different pitcher. Through 23 games between July 11 and Oct 1, Barnes amassed a monstrous 6.11 ERA, with 12 earned runs through 17 2/3 innings.

A run on the COVID-19 related injured list didn’t help his cause. Neither did his breakfast one morning at the end of September, when he sliced off the tip of his left thumb in a kitchen accident (as told to the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier).

While Barnes was working through all of that, the Red Sox were forced to look elsewhere for a closer.

Adam Ottavino largely remained in a setup role, but was stretched out to finish a handful games as he had throughout the first half of the season. In the postseason, he incidentally closed ALDS Game 1 as well as Game 6 of the ALCS, pitching the eighth inning with the visiting Red Sox trailing.

Garrett Whitlock also appeared in the role at the tail end of the season, capping a stellar rookie season with some appearances in later innings, especially in the postseason.

Josh Taylor also closed out some games late in the season. Hansel Robles, Darwinzon Hernandez and Austin Davis were among the others who seemingly had auditions for the role. Starter Tanner Houck closed twice in the regular season — both after Barnes started to implode — but was explicitly used in middle relief in the postseason.

Looking at that group, Ottavino is the most likely player to be able to handle a consistent closer role with the reliability of the typical Barnes. Robles showed a flash of promise as a closer for the Los Angeles Angels in 2019.

But Ottavino is entering free agency, as is Robles. Richards has a team option, so it will be up to the Red Sox to decide if he remains in Boston.

Barnes is under contract through 2024.

Cora and chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom expressed confidence in the returns among the pitching staff at Monday’s press conference, and again, explicitly endorsed Barnes. But it’s hard not to wonder what the plan is with the closer role for 2022 and beyond.

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