In May of 2016 the Boston Red Sox were scoring runs in bunches and winning most of the games they played. By the time the month was over, the Red Sox were in first place, had put together an 18-10 record, and looked ready to remain atop the AL East through the summer.
Then June came and everything we thought we knew about the Red Sox went into full reverse. The Red Sox didn’t score as many runs, and when they did score runs it seemed as if either the starting pitching or the bullpen let them down. They finished the month 10-16 and trailing the Baltimore Orioles in the standings.
As the final weeks of July tick-off the calendar, the Red Sox are in the midst of a better month than they had in May. They’re 12-3 and they’ve been beating teams both good and bad on their way back into first place in the American League East.
Thursday night the Red Sox did exactly what a good team should do against a last place opponent.
They crushed them.
Behind an All-Star caliber performance from All-Star starting pitcher Steven Wright, the Red Sox erupted for 13 runs and 17 hits. Allegedly slumping Xander Bogaerts was 3-for-4, Dustin Pedroia was 5-for-5, David Ortiz hit his 24th home run of the season, he was joined in the long ball parade by Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr.
It was the type of win the Red Sox have been enjoying all season long.
Now comes the tough part.
The Red Sox next scheduled off-day is August 8th. By that time they’ll have played 20 games in a row, and 11 of those 20 will be road games. More specifically, the final 11 of those 20 will be road games. They’ll be out west where they’ll play four against the Angels, four against the Mariners and three against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The schedule issues are more significant because in case you haven’t noticed, the Red Sox bullpen is not exactly in perfect health.
Craig Kimbrel is sidelined for at least another month. Junichi Tazawa is expected to be activated off the disabled list on Friday. Tazawa can be effective, but he’s not by any means a lights-out type of late inning guy and he’s becoming increasingly injury prone which limits how much a manager can rely on him on a nightly basis.
Then there’s 41 year old Koji Uehara. Uehara will always be fondly remembered by Red Sox fans for his otherworldly dominance during the team’s remarkable run to the 2013 World Series title. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, Koji Uehara 2016 is not that close to the 2013 version. He’s no longer nearly as effective on the mound, batters have been able to lay-off his cutter and once he falls behind in the count he either walks batters (he’s averaging a career-high 2.3 per 9 innings pitched this year,) or they’re able to pounce on his pitches get hits.
The biggest problem for Uehara right now is that he’s also on the disabled list and the timetable for his return is as of now quite up-in-the-air. Following Wednesday night’s game Red Sox manager John Farrell sounded less than optimistic about Uehara’s prognosis.
“At the time of the injury we knew it was significant and we put him on the DL before the MRI,” manager John Farrell said after Wednesday’s game. “It obviously confirms a strain. To what extent? We’re still getting our arms around that. This is a unique injury for a pitcher. I guess the best thing I can tell you is the MRI does confirm the strain.”
With just over a week until the non-waiver trade deadline, the bullpen has become the focus for the Red Sox going forward.
Yes the team needs to see another nice start from Eduardo Rodriguez, yes Drew Pomeranz was not quite as good as the team would have liked when he made his first start for the team Wednesday night. Chris Young, and Blake Swihart are still on the DL and who really knows how long Rick Porcello and Steven Wright can keep up their thus-far beyond expectation seasons.
Those are all minor issues compared to the bullpen. Brad Ziegler is the team’s new closer. He’s got closer experience, but he wasn’t supposed to be in this role.
Matt Barnes continues to improve. He’s rapidly becoming a legitimate late-inning option who can be counted on to get major league hitters out with improving consistency.
Former starting pitcher Joe Kelly is working his way back from injury. He’s not just rehabbing from an injury though. He’s also transitioning from starting pitcher to relief pitcher. His transformation has shown lots of positive signs so far. Kelly will be back, it isn’t clear when, but he’s probably not going to be pitching in Triple-A that much longer.
Even if Kelly comes up and is effective, and if Barnes continues to develop, and Ziegler is able to fill-in as an effective closer, the bullpen still remains a vulnerable part of the team.
If Kimbrel can come back and be an All-Star caliber closer, and if Uehara’s unique injury isn’t season-ending, and if Kelly can be as effective out of the pen in the majors as he’s been in Triple-A, then the Red Sox bullpen could be pretty deep and effective by the time September rolls around.
That’s a lot of “ifs,” and it still doesn’t tackle the task of getting to September while continuing the team’s winning ways.
After the Sox return home from LA and get an off-day on Monday August 8th, they’ll resume playing the next day, and then play 23 games in 23 days with 11 of those on the road.
Those types of stretches are exactly why teams need deep bullpens. The team’s starters will be tested. The weather will be hot, with the Red Sox in pursuit of a playoff berth, manager John Farrell will be rightly hesitant to push the starters to throw extra innings or extra pitches unless absolutely necessary.
Of course an ineffective or shallow bullpen would both be factors that could make pushing the starters beyond their ideal pitch counts necessary.
The Red Sox can keep winning, but they’re not going to score 10 or more runs every night, and if they want to be able to win games on nights when the offense does not light-up the opposing pitchers, then they’re probably going to need to find a way to bolster that bullpen before the trade deadline.