Joe Kelly’s Transition to the Bullpen May Prove Critical To Red Sox Success

Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Joe Kelly (56) throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Wednesday, June 1, 2016, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) (Nick Wass)

The 2015 Boston Red Sox were a last place team, and one of the primary reasons for that was their bullpen.

The Red Sox bullpen was 13th in the AL in ERA and had the second highest batting average against at .264. Both Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa suffered injuries, and what was left was pretty bad.

The 2015-16 offseason priority list included adding to the bullpen, and add is what Dave Dombrowski did.

He traded for closer Craig Kimbrel, and for skilled late-innings man Carson Smith.

Smith got hurt in spring training, allegedly got healthy, spent less than three innings on the mound, and was then lost for the season to tommy john surgery.

Kimbrel was almost everything Red Sox fans could have expected. His upper 90’s fastball mowed down opposing batters, and in spite of a few subpar outings, he still found himself named to the 2016 American League All-Star team.

He also found himself undergoing knee surgery. Kimbrel’s injury coincided with yet another trade. This one brought late-innings specialist Brad Ziegler over from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Ziegler’s arrival and Kimbrel’s injury pushed Koji Uehara back into his role as the team’s closer.

Tuesday night the Red Sox shutout one of the best teams in baseball, the San Francisco Giants 4-0.

Koji Uehara was brought in to work the ninth inning, but after throwing just seven pitches he had to leave with was is being called a strained pectoral muscle. 

Uehara may very well end up on the disabled list. Were that to happen he’d join the three other pitchers who were assumed to be a core-four in the bullpen prior to opening day.

Smith, Kimbrel and Tazawa are all on the DL, and no matter how good anyone thinks Brad Ziegler is, he’s not good enough to pitch the final two or three innings of every close game the Red Sox are involved in.

Tazawa could be activated as soon as Friday. Even if he is, the injuries to Kimbrel and Uehara leave the team woefully shallow as far as late-innings options go.

The Red Sox could delve back into the trade market. That’s risky because not only are the Red Sox beginning to run low on marketable and expendable assets, they’d also be trading from a position of weakness.

A Major League GM need not do much research to figure out that the Red Sox need bullpen help, and need it sooner than later.

Add in the rapidly approaching July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, and the Red Sox could find themselves in a position where they’d be forced to overpay or even dramatically overpay to acquire a relief pitcher that may or may not end up being nearly as good as anticipated.

Perhaps the Red Sox have an in-house answer to their bullpen problems?

Joe Kelly.

Yea, the same Joe Kelly that has spent his Red Sox career as one of the more consistently ineffective starting pitchers on the roster not named “Clay Buchholz.”

That Joe Kelly has been rehabbing from his own injury, but his rehab hasn’t been spent making starts. Kelly has been coming out of the bullpen, and the results have been quite encouraging.

Monday night Kelly worked a scoreless eighth for the Red Sox Triple-A affiliate, the Pawtucket Red Sox.  He gave up one hit, walked no-one and struck out the side on just 19 pitches.

Tuesday,’s Christopher Smith reported that Red Sox manager John Farrell had been quite pleased with Kelly’s performances as a reliever.

“He was very strong,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “(It was) his second outing at Pawtucket. So as far as him moving to the bullpen, that is going as we could have hoped.”

Kelly has made five relief appearances on this rehab stint. He had one bad outing, a one-inning, four-hit, two-earned run mess while pitching in Single-A ball.

The other four have totaled six innings, zero earned runs, two hits, zero walks and nine strikeouts.

Those are very good numbers. If Kelly was able to replicate those numbers at the major league level then he’d instantly become one of the team’s better late-inning options. He’d also be in line to play a key role out of the bullpen down the stretch this season, even after both Uehara and Kimbrel get healthy.

The 2014 trade which sent John Lackey to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Kelly and outfielder/first baseman Allen Craig is routinely mentioned as being a disaster for the Red Sox, and up until this point, it has been.

Of course the player the Red Sox traded in that deal, John Lackey was for years mentioned as one of the team’s worst free agent signings.

That all changed when he had a great 2013 and helped lead the Red Sox to an unlikely World Series title.

It is far too early to anoint the 2016 Red Sox World Series Champs, but if this team is going to make a deep playoff run, they’re going to need a deep bullpen. If Kelly can reinvent himself from failed starter to shutdown reliever, then the Red Sox are going to have an unexpectedly strong bullpen, with a key contribution from an unlikely source.




About the Author

Ben Shapiro
Red Sox columnist for ESPN New Hampshire. Originally from Western Massachusetts, I currently live in New York City with my wife and dog. I've previously written for Huffington Post, Bleacher Report and

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