If the Red Sox Struggle in 2019, It Will Be the Bullpen's Fault

To everyone who is about to go all crazy after reading my headline, I ask you to give me a moment to make my case in this post. Yes, I know it's spring training and yes, I realize that these games don't count. Teams are usually playing their fringe major league/AAAA guys and trying to get a look at what they have in every level of their farm systems. The regulars don't usually play more than a few innings a game and the pitchers throw even less. You can never gauge how well a team is going to do in the regular season based on what they do in spring training, and the Red Sox are bringing back the team that won 108 games and a World Series almost completely intact. Everything will be fine, right?

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Normally I'd agree, but for some reason the longer this spring goes on the more of a bad feeling I'm getting about the  Sox. With a 6-13 record, Boston sits dead last in the Grapefruit League standings a year after winning it. The Sox have said and (seemingly) done all the right things, but it hasn't translated at all to the results on the field. Is it the offense that I'm worried about? Not really. The potent Red Sox lineup that rampaged through the regular season and went 11-3 in the postseason returns almost completely whole. Reigning AL MVP Mookie Betts, near-Triple Crown winner JD Martinez, Andrew Benintendi, ALCS MVP Jackie Bradley, World Series MVP Steve Pearce, Xander Bogaerts (after a career year), and Mitch Moreland all return healthy and ready to go. Rafael Devers has another year of (hopefully) maturation at the plate and in the field under his belt while the team waits to see what, if anything, they might get from the returning Dustin Pedroia. These guys have been working on their hitting all spring and besides, at best they're usually only getting a couple of at bats per game before sitting to let the young guys play. They may hit from the very first pitch of opening day or they may start slow, but they'll be fine. Is it the starting pitching that's causing consternation? Nope. Again, they return the same rotation that bulldozed through the league with a healthy Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Nathan Eovaldi, and a seemingly rejuvenated Eduardo Rodriguez. These guys have been throwing and working all spring and like the hitters, they're usually only throwing a few innings a game to keep them fresh and get their arms into shape. Once the season starts, they should be fine.

That leaves the same thing that has been a bugbear of mine for the last several years: THE BULLPEN. If you read any of my posts last season (or my new Red Sox book), this will come as no surprise to you. Mark my words, if the 2019 Red Sox fail to mount a strong defense of their World Series title (or even their AL East title), it will be because of their horrific bullpen. Despite the numbers, the Red Sox bullpen in 2018 wasn't great if you actually watched them on a day-in/day-out basis (which I did). The Sox led the league in runs scored and had a potent offense, so more often than not the pen pitched from ahead with a lead which masked a lot of their issues and made the numbers look better than they were. This year they bring back almost the entire bullpen from last year minus their best reliever from October (Joe Kelly) and their closer who was awful in October (Craig Kimbrel). What's left? Tyler Thornburg looks even worse this spring than he did last season...a bust and proof positive that the Sox once and for all lost the Travis Shaw trade. Ryan Brasier had a delay to his spring because of an infected toe (no, seriously). Brandon Workman, Brian Johnson, and Hector Velazquez have looked lousy, Steven Wright is suspended 80 games for PED use, Matt Barnes has been inconsistent (what else is new?), Heath Hembree (my personal least-favorite) has barely pitched (which is actually a plus), and Carson Smith is still rehabbing the shoulder he injured by stupidly throwing his glove down too hard in the dugout last year. There isn't any major league-ready help coming from the farm system (or at least any quite yet) and what all of this leads up to is a bullpen that looks EVEN WORSE than 2018. By and large I've been a fan of how Dave Dombrowski has constructed the team and obviously the results of the last few seasons (and especially 2018) speak for themselves, but the one thing he has done an atrocious job of since he was hired in 2015 is building a quality bullpen. He seems to either willfully neglect it or be downright delusional when evaluating the talent they have in there.  Given the abysmal track record Boston has in developing pitchers from within over the last 10-15 years and with the quality guys they chose to pass on signing this offseason (a couple of whom ended up with the Yankees), it looks like we could be in for a long season of blown leads and losses snatched from the jaws of victory with this sorry crew.

Maybe Mookie, JD, and Xander don't come close to the monstrous seasons they had last year. Maybe the starting rotation has a down year. Maybe the Yankees are just too good and the Sox can't keep up with them this year (I don't think any of us expect the Sox to win 108 games again this year anyway). But if I were a betting man (and I'm not), I'd put good money, and a LOT of it, on the bullpen being the reason the Red Sox don't repeat the success of 2018 in 2019. I guess we'll find out starting next week.

If you'd like to relive all of the excitement and memories of the incredible 2018 season, my book A Win For Every Stitch will take you back to that historic year!