The Red Sox just rolled off six straight wins, they’re tied with the Orioles for second place in the AL East, 1.5 games back of the first place Blue Jays. If the season ended Friday morning the Red Sox and Orioles would be the American League’s two wild card teams.
For a team coming off back-to-back last place finishes in 2014 and 2015, that’s a solid season of marked improvement.
The problem is that it feels like the Red Sox should be better.
A healthy Eduardo Rodriguez, a resurgent Rick Porcello, and the acquisition of Drew Pomeranz may have transformed the previously bad Red Sox starting pitching into a formidable playoff-caliber five-man battery. The bullpen remains a glaring and significant issue.
Thursday afternoon in Detroit, the problems surrounding the Red Sox bullpen were put on full (and ugly) display.
The Red Sox had received an early Christmas gift in the form of a six-inning, six hit, no walks and one earned run start courtesy of Mr. Clay Buchholz. Set aside for a moment that Buchholz was facing a truly formidable offense, and that it was a road game. The team was going on minimal sleep, and due to inclement weather, Buchholz hadn’t been able to leave Baltimore early in advance of the start. Set all of that aside and it was the best start of 2016 for the much-maligned veteran.
The offense? They looked sleepy.
It was a 1-1 game heading into the eighth inning, and the team’s six-game winning streak was unquestionably in peril.
The Red Sox were able to scrap together two runs in the top of the eighth to take what really should have been a fairly safe 3-1 lead. In spite of the lack of sleep, the bullpen was actually rested. Thanks to Wednesday night’s rain-shortened affair, the pen hadn’t been used since Tuesday.
There was only one logical option to start the eighth.
Yes Ziegler has struggled as of late, and his numbers against the Tigers were fairly bad, but he’s a former closer acquired to be a set-up man. So you bring him in and ideally he hands off a one or two run lead to closer Craig Kimbrel in the ninth. Plus, who else are you going to bring in? Junichi Tazawa?
Tazawa’s road ERA is 7.71, his ERA during day games is 6.43, and his ERA since the All-Star break is 9.00. Which one of those numbers screams, “let’s bring him in to face Ian Kinsler, Erick Aybar and Miguel Cabrera..?”
Yet that was the decision made by Red Sox manager John Farrell. Tazawa didn’t get an out. He left with two on, no outs and the score 3-2.
That’s when Farrell summed Ziegler who was now being asked to perform the almost impossible task of setting down Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez and Casey McGehee without allowing the tying run to score from 3rd base with no outs.
That’s a tall order for any reliever, no matter how good they are. For the struggling Ziegler is was far too much to ask. By the time the inning was over, it was 4-3 Detroit courtesy of a hard-to-watch, bases loaded walk to Andrew Romine which provided the go-ahead run.
Setting aside the choice of Tazawa over Ziegler, it is worth mentioning that the Red Sox bullpen is not chock-full of good options these days.
Ziegler over Tazawa? Sure but that’s not exactly a slam-dunk.
Over his last six appearances Ziegler has an ERA of 4.26, with five walks and eight hits in only 6.1 innings of action. That’s not exactly a “set-up” guy, unless of course he’s setting up for disaster.
Matt Barnes once looked like he was on track to becoming a dominant late-inning option. His ERA since the All-Star break is 5.54. Fernando Abad was acquired to be a late-inning lefty specialist and he’s got an ERA of 11.25 over his seven appearances in a Red Sox uniform.
The reality is that there are no really good options right now, not until you get to the ninth, with a lead, and that’s when the Red Sox can call upon Craig Kimbrel. Even Kimbrel is not quite the dominant reliever that he was for most of his pre-Red Sox career.
The team’s options are pretty limited.
There’s no shortage of people who have advised the Red Sox to pluck Jonathan Papelbon off the waiver wire. The former All-Star closer for the Red Sox was released by the Washington Nationals last week.
Papelbon used to be known as one of the sport’s most dominant closers. Over the last year he’s become more noteworthy for getting in a fight with reigning National League MVP and former teammate Bryce Harper, critiquing the Nationals’ fans for not standing enough during a crucial game last September, and subjecting his former teammates to loud, pro-Donald Trump music in the clubhouse.
Were all of this just stuff that happened while Papelbon continued to mow-down opposing batters and routinely retire the side in order, then yes by all means the potential rewards would no-doubt outweigh the risks to team chemistry and clubhouse unity.
Unfortunately for Papelbon, that’s not the case.
Papelbon isn’t the same guy he once was. That happens when you turn 35 and you’ve been closing games since 2006. There’s nothing unusual about Papelbon’s drop-off in terms of effectiveness. In fact he’s been quite good at fighting off the type of decline that most closers not named “Mariano Rivera” have to confront after multiple seasons of closing out games.
It isn’t as if Papelbon left Boston on the sunniest of terms. Remember when the Red Sox collapsed in 2011? Remember when the team just needed to beat a last place Orioles team on the final night of the season to eek into the playoffs and avoid a fairly historical late-season collapse?
The Red Sox led 3-2 heading into the bottom of the ninth. Papelbon struck out Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds. There were two outs, no one on and the Red Sox were one out away….
A Chris Davis double, followed by a ground-rule double from Nolan Reimold tied the game 3-3. That was followed by a Robert Andino single which scored Reimold, ended the game, and the Red Sox season.
That’s the Papelbon that left Boston.
Since then he’s gone from being a very good closer on some fairly bad Philadelphia Phillies teams, to an ineffective closer on a pretty darn good Washington Nationals team.
This year Papelbon has been coming to terms with a drop-off in velocity. That drop-off has coincided with an ERA that escalated in every month this season from April to July. He’s become increasingly easy to get hits off of. He’s also not able to get the strikeouts that got him out of jams throughout most of his career.
On one hand this makes him a natural fit for the Red Sox pen. After all, Papelbon’s struggles seem to mirror those of Tazawa, Ziegler, and prior to his injury Koji Uehara. All three relievers are dealing with the reality of less effective pitches, and all three are struggling to replicate the performances they’ve been known for over their careers.
Not sure how adding another aging, past-his-prime veteran helps this crew? Especially when he comes with the aforementioned issues that have not always made him the easiest guy to add to a team midseason.
The best bet for the Red Sox is probably to hope that Barnes can get his confidence back, and that Buchholz can be as effective out of the pen going forward, as he was as a starter Thursday afternoon.
Perhaps there are some guys in the minors, Kyle Martin, Noe Ramirez, Joe Kelly, the recently recalled Heath Hembree, or even Brain Johnson who can make meaningful contributions down the stretch?
Other than that the Red Sox best bet might be kicking it old school, as in back to the 1970’s when starters routinely went the distance or at least took games into the seventh and eighth innings on a regular basis.
Forget the modern philosophy of shortening games for starters and for the remaining month and a half of the 2016 season let guys like Porcello, Pomeranz, Price and once healthy, Wright take games into the late innings and hope they’ve got leads when they eventually depart.