By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Senior Staff Writer
As the Red Sox record-setting regular season is rapidly coming to a close, major questions still surround Alex Cora’s pitching staff. Whether or not Chris Sale will return to his pre-shoulder issue dominant self, and what version of David Price will show up for the playoffs are on every Sox fans mind.
However, the one thing that likely keeps the American League Manager of the Year candidate up at night is something that has followed the president of baseball operations, Dave Dombrowski, almost all of his career – a badly built bullpen.
In it, Speier details just how desperate the situation has become, and how difficult the decisions the rookie manager may be forced to make on MLB’s biggest stage once September turns to October, thanks to his boss’s reluctance – or inability – to add arms to the back of his bullpen.
It is not breaking news – rather a sobering reality – that the most likely thing to sink the Red Sox ship is the fact that Dombrowski either overrated the arms he had on his roster at the trade deadline or was unwilling to pay the price that the market was baring for late-inning pitchers at the end of July and August.
Either way, Cora’s choices for relievers to pitch in high leverage situations in the 7th and 8th innings is baseball’s version of cutting cards or playing roulette. It is basically a blind draw.
Dombrowski’s inability to build a reliable bullpen is nothing new. After he was let go by the Detroit Tigers in 2015, FoxSports.com took him to task for the very same reason.
As Speier points out in his piece, there are no reliable options for the Sox skipper to go to in order to bridge the gap between his starters and closer Craig Kimbrel.
The fact that Cora is willing to audition knuckleballer Steven Wright for a leveraged innings role speaks volumes to how poorly his relief staff has been assembled.
A quick look at his options beyond Wright will make most Sox fans swallow hard. Joe Kelly is a mess and can’t be trusted in most any situation. Brandon Workman’s velocity is down considerably, and he spent a majority of the season in Pawtucket.
Matt Barnes is recovering from a hip injury and Drew Pomeranz toast. Bobby Poyner, Robby Scott, and Tyler Thornburg shouldn’t see the mound in October unless the Red Sox are up by ten runs or down by the same amount. Ryan Brasier is 31 years old and has appeared in just 36 games, none in the post-season.
And Heath Hembree is…well, Heath Hembree.
As Speier points out, the Red Sox bullpen has performed the worst of any likely American League playoff team since the All-Star break, and it is highly unlikely that is something that is going to miraculously change soon.
Even if Nathon Eovaldi – the 2018 version of Jeff Suppan – is put into the role of a 7th or 8th inning guy, who knows whether or not he has the mentality – it is widely considered he has the arsenal to be successful – or the ability to handle such a role given the limited amount of times he has been asked to pitch in relief over his career.
In other words, while Alex Cora had deftly guided the Red Sox to the best regular season in all of baseball, he may be facing the biggest challenge of any manager entering the playoffs. October baseball is a different animal, and Cora knows it. He experienced the ride as the bench coach last season for the World Series defending champion Astros.
If he is to repeat the run of nearly 12 months ago he had in Houston, it will some doing considering the limited arms that Dombrowski has given him to work with in the late innings.
The Red Sox may have had the best regular season in baseball this year, however, if they fall to win it all the blame be squarely on the shoulders of the Sox czar of baseball operations, not the first year manager.