Sox Bullpen in Search of Respect, As Well As Saves
By Jason Mastrodonato
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Craig Kimbrel isn’t walking through that door.
Not the door to the Red Sox clubhouse, and certainly not the door from the Red Sox bullpen to the field at Fenway Park.
That ship has sailed. All around the world. Three times and back. It’s not happening.
Then there were two incredibly impressive young arms in Darwinzon Hernandez and Durbin Feltman in camp this spring. Manager Alex Cora cut them both. They need to keep developing, he said.
Another ship sailed.
Opening Day is Thursday and the Red Sox are looking at a bullpen that will have eight players who have combined for 29 seasons in the majors and just 15 saves amongst them. Tyler Thornburg saved 13 games for the Brewers before thoracic outlet syndrome altered his career and Matt Barnes has picked up two saves in his five years with the Red Sox.
The highest salary in the bullpen is Thornburg’s $1.75 million mark.
Nobody needs to start listing names and salaries of the relievers in the Yankees bullpen to notice a difference in star quality. That exercise could be done for just about any bullpen in the majors and the Red Sox would still come up light.
“We don’t give a crap,” Heath Hembree said early in camp. “We consider ourselves the offensive linemen of baseball.”
The offensive linemen of baseball.
Ryan Brasier, who looks like he could be the set-up guy to Barnes unless Cora pulls a switcheroo on Opening Day, had never heard of that label.
“Oh my God,” he said when told of the self-bestowed nickname.
But it made sense to him.
“From the time I got here last year through the playoffs, through spring training, everyone talks about how good we are, minus our bullpen,” Brasier said. “I think everyone uses a little motivation to try to prove to people that it wasn’t a fluke what we did in the playoffs last year and carry it through this year.”
Is it annoying?
“I don’t know if it’s annoying,” he said. “Don’t matter who you are, people are going to talk. Not everyone is going to have something good to say about a group or a person. I don’t think it’s annoying. I think it’s motivation.”
Barnes, who took a major step forward last year and could use his high-90s fastball and signature curve to save some games in Kimbrel’s place this year, was well aware of the nickname. He wears it with pride.
“The offensive line is incredibly important part of the team that often doesn’t get as much credit as other portions of the team,” Barnes said. “I don’t remember how it came about.”
The Sox bullpen hasn’t gotten much credit, not when they ranked eighth in the majors last year with a 3.72 ERA and not when they completed the postseason without blowing a save, despite Kimbrel’s tightrope walking habits.
“I feel like there’s a lot of time when we’re the ones doubted the most, is how I’ll say it,” Barnes said. “We don’t mind it at all. We go out there with a chip on our shoulder. We’re confident in what we have here, what we can do and our ability to get the job done. That’s all that matters to us. We’ve played together long enough that regardless of what anyone else writes, it doesn’t matter to us.”
Losing Kimbrel and Joe Kelly without replacing them made it easier to wonder if the Sox would struggle to close out games in 2019.
“Anytime you lose two crucial parts, people are going to ask questions,” Barnes said. “Craig was our bullpen what Mookie to is the middle of our lineup. If Mookie isn’t on this team, questions would be asked of the offense. It’s just the nature and probably to be expected. Losing Joe, who has some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen, they’re fair questions. I don’t think anyone is going to disagree that they aren’t fair. But at the same time, we’re incredible confident in our ability to get the job done and what we have here.”
It’s difficult to project how successful this ’pen will be when nobody knows who the closer is. Not even Barnes or Brasier.
“Life of a bullpen guy,” Brasier said. “Whenever you’re called, ready to go.”
Said Barnes, “I can’t wait. Phone rings, come in, do my job and do anything I can to help this team win.”
Both Barnes and Brasier said they’d love to be the closer, but aren’t too concerned about it. Both were used in high-leverage spots all last year.
This year will be slightly different.
The Red Sox’ offensive line has to protect the Tom Brady of starting rotations. And everyone in New England will be wondering if they’re capable of doing that.
“Any reliever would love to be the closer,” Barnes said. “It’s one of the most highly touted positions in the bullpen. Probably the most. But while closing is fun, winning games and winning World Series is a lot more fun than any role someone is going to give you.”