Other than signing free agent starter David Price, new Boston President Dave Dombrowski made his biggest potential improvement to the oft times beleaguered Boston bullpen. Here is a brief synopsis of how the bullpen is likely to begin the season. There is only one, perhaps temporary change from the 25 man roster prediction made here at RSM as spring training was commencing.
The Big Four.
This group of bullpen aces begins with the new closer, ex-NLer, Craig Kimbrel. A very good case could be made that Kimbrel has been the best closer in baseball over the last five seasons. Kimbrel had 39 saves for the Padres last year, and that was his lowest career total, compiling 46,42,50, and 47 in his four seasons as Atlanta closer. Despite his small stature, Kimbrel throws in the high 90's and in 348 career innings has 563 strikeouts. Exactly the type of pitcher the Boston pen needed.
The other acquisition from Seattle was Carson Smith. The 2015 was the first full big league season for the now 26 year old. Smith is another power arm, and he struck out 92 in 78 innings in 2015. He also held the Mariners closer's job for a portion of last year, and had 13 saves. Smith will pitch in the seventh or eighth innings of games and will help lengthen the pen. Smith has the chance to be every bit as important a newcomer as Kimbrel.
The these two power arms coming into the pen will change the roles of the two retuning Japanese stars of the bullpen for the last few years: Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa. Koji has accepted a move from closer to the key eighth inning set up man, a role he excelled at for three AL teams, including the Red Sox before being anointed closer mid way through 2013's world championship run. Koji will turn 41 on April 3, Opening Day eve, and is returning from a broken right wrist injury from last August. But if either the age or the injury impact Koji's results, Smith should be capable of handling the eighth and Uehara could move back to seventh inning duty. Tazawa may have a similar role to 2015, although his eighth inning appearances will likely turn into seventh or even sixth inning duties. Tazawa is entering his free agent season, and will have all the motivation in the world to perform. But the biggest change, hopefully for the good, will be Tazawa should not be called upon so often. He has made over 200 appearances in the last three seasons (not counting 13 more in the '13 post season). In each of the last two campaigns, Tazawa has seemingly wilted later in the year. Fifty strong outings from Tazawa would be one of the results of obtaining Carson Smith hopefully.
The two lefties.
Robbie Ross, Jr. and Tommy Layne are both in line to return to the Boston bullpen. Whether this good news or bad remains to be seen. Ross began the 2015 shaky at best after being acquired from Texas for Anthony Ranaudo. Ross pitched much better in the second half and after Uehara's injury and Tazawa's fatigue Ross became the Sox closer for a time and finished with six saves and an ERA of 3.86 in 54 games. If you count Tazawa's brief dalliance as Sox closer, the Boston bullpen will have five pitchers who acted as closer in 2015. Ross came to Boston after a shaky 2014 in which Texas tried him as a starter. But in 2012 and 2013 Ross appeared in 58 and 65 games with ERA's of 2.22 and 3.03. Ross, Jr. may be a useful relief pitcher in a secondary role, especially when he will not turn 27 until June. Layne has a so-so 2015, but if the Sox limit Layne's usage to a left handed specialist, he could be an asset. In 2015 right handed batters hit .322 with an OPS of .950. But lefties only hit .148 versus Layne with an OPS of .418. Bring him in to get a tough lefty and get him out of there, and Layne may still have value.
All of that being said about Ross and Layne, if Dave Dombrowski feels like a late spring training deal, a lefty power arm for the pen, may be a shopping item.
This was expected to be Stephen Wright, who is out of options and cannot be stashed at AAA, but is also considered valuable starting pitching depth. And that depth is needed right away, as Eduardo Rodriguez will begin 2016 on the DL with a kneecap issue. Wright is battling lefties Henry Owens and Roenis Elias (who was obtained from the Mariners along with Carson Smith) to open the year as the fifth starter and it looks like Wright has the inside track. This means someone else will be the 12th pitcher on April 4th in Cleveland. It could be Elias, but if he is not starting in Boston, the Sox likely will want him starting for Pawtucket.
So the 12th spot should go to one of more impressive pitchers in camp: Matt Barnes. Barnes, who had his MLB debut in 2014, actually made 32 appearances for the 2015 Sox, but with a disappointing 5.44 ERA, allowing nine home runs in 43 innings. But this spring, rather than bouncing Barnes between starting and relieving, Matt has been strictly in the bullpen and has impressive numbers: five games, seven innings, four hits, a walk and no runs allowed. Barnes has struck out eight. Now this is spring training, numbers rarely if ever matter. But they can matter if you are trying to make the team, and if Barnes continues on this spring pace, he will make the team.
A couple of interesting names who are both likely to begin at AAA. Young flame thrower, Pat Light, a former sandwich rounder Sox draftee, who can hit 100 on the guns, has all ready been optioned to AAA. Command is still an issue, but if Light can harness some of the wildness in Rhode Island, he is very likely to help the Boston bullpen before the year is over.
The notable camp invitee is former Cubs closer, Carlos Marmol. Marmol is not likely to make the team, and may well start 2016 in Pawtucket. Back in 2010 and 2011 had 72 saves over the two years. Carlos throws hard, but has control issues galore. The real reason Marmol, at age 33, is still of interest is due to Brian Bannister. Now Bannister deserves an entire post of his own, but in short, he is a former big league pitchers who is heavily into analytics. Boston hired Bannister as a scout of sorts a years ago, and Dombrowski was so impressed by him, he made Bannister coordinator of pitching for the entire organization, a new position. Bannister feels he can change Marmol's arm slot and revive his career. This spring Marmol has pitched in three games with 2 1/3 scoreless innings with three K's and one walk. This could be an interesting experiment, if Marmol accepts an assignment to Pawtucket.
So this concludes our pre-season look around the roster. Two weeks from tomorrow is Opening Day and many more post worthy topics will emerge. We here at RSM, like the rest of Red Sox Nation cannot wait.