The 2018 Boston Red Sox took home their fourth title in 15 seasons, and their bullpen played a big part of that run, posting the ninth-best ERA (3.72), fifth-most strikeouts (628), and 12th-best WHIP (1.29). During the offseason, they elected not to resign closer Craig Kimbrel and lost bespectacled right-hander Joe Kelly to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Little effort was made to recoup similar talents to fill those gaps, and the team entered 2019 with Colten Brewer, Ryan Weber, Erasmo Ramirez, and a couple of other fliers as the only additions to the pen.
In 2019, the inevitable happened. This economically conscious version of the Red Sox bullpen struggled and saw its production slump in most areas. A desire to get below the luxury-tax threshold in 2020 means that additions to the pen will be minimal at best and that most, if not all of the same crew are due to return for the upcoming season, including a few of whom who hold interesting fantasy appeal as you sift through fantasy relief options.
Closer – Brandon Workman
Per FanGraphs, Brandon Workman was one of nine relievers to generate more than 2 WAR last season, tying Taylor Rogers, Felipe Vasquez, and Nick Anderson for the fifth-most WAR from a reliever in 2019. Some keys to his success? Among qualified relievers, Workman allowed a league-low 29 hits, posted a high strikeout rate (36.4 K%, 11th overall), removed home runs from the equation (2.6 HR/FB%, 1st in MLB, only one HRA in 2019), and posted the lowest Barrel% (0.7%) among pitchers with at least 100 BBEs. In short, he was nearly unhittable (.173 xBA, .255 xwOBA, .233 XSLG).
Swapping in his curveball as his main pitch (47% usage rate; +10.3% in 2019) put that weapon (36.2 K%, 29.7 Whiff%, 27.9 PutAway%) front and center, making his four-seamer (+23.5 K%, +4.7 Whiff%, +7.4 PutAway%) and cutter (+10.9 K%, +10 Whiff%, +13.6 PutAway%) more effective. The one blemish in his work was an obscenely high walk rate (15.7% BB%, third-highest among qualified relievers).
The likelihood that Workman continues to generate league-low marks in HRA and Barrel% are low, and advanced looks at his 1.88 ERA (2.46 FIP, 3.33 xFIP, 3.78 SIERA) support the idea that some regression in production will come next season. Even with a correction, there is enough there for Workman to remain an upper-tier relief option, especially if he can get his BB% back in control. Though he has not officially been named the closer for 2020, his dominating September run (11.1 IP, 18 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.794 WHIP, 7 S) and the lack of a more proven option lead me to believe he will be a mid-tier closing option at worst next season.
Setup – Matt Barnes
Matt Barnes turned in another strong effort in 2019, using his curveball/four-seam mix to generate a 3.78 ERA (3.25 SIERA) in 64.1 innings. He posted the sixth-highest K% (38.6%) among qualified relievers and set a new career mark for SwStr% (14.9) as well. A three-year trend of increased walks continued (13.3% BB%, +1.6% in 2019), and Barnes had some issues keeping the ball in the park as well (19.5 HR/FB%).
Overall, Barnes is one of the better late-inning arms in the game and provides a lot of value for owners due to his penchant for racking up strikeouts and holds. He can be inconsistent (9.69 ERA in June, 5.23 ERA in August) and will never be a league-leader in WHIP (1.38 in 2019) but should finish 2020 as one of the better non-closer fantasy relief arms.
Setup – Josh Taylor
Josh Taylor made his debut at the end of May and was a pleasant surprise for the Red Sox bullpen, relying on a devastating slider (42 K%, 46.6 Whiff%, 25.4 PutAway%) to log 47.1 productive innings in his rookie campaign. He struck out 32% of batters faced and was adept at making batters chase (and miss) his offerings (35.1 O-Swing%, 15.1 SwStr%). Issues with control did exist (8.3 BB%), though not to an extreme level. All in all, Taylor mimicked much of the production he showed during his time in the minors and will be an interesting arm to watch in 2020. Home runs could be an issue for him (12.8 HR/FB%) but if he can get his ground-ball rates closer to what he posted in the minors, he has the chance to be valuable as a late-inning arm.
Middle – Darwinzon Hernandez
Like Taylor, Darwinzon Hernandez also made his debut in 2019 and flashed some serious late-inning offerings in his 30.1 innings pitched. Two pitches make up the entirety of the Venezuelan’s arsenal. The first, a 70-grade four-seam fastball (74% usage rate), baffled opposing hitters (.154 xBA/.269 xwOBA/.205 xSLG) and proved to be an excellent way to finish a plate appearance in Hernandez’s favor (39.1 K%, 37.2 Whiff%, 29.2 PutAway%). His second pitch, a slider, was just as devastating (38.7 K%, 30.2 Whiff%, 21.4 PutAway%) and offered no solace (.177 xBA/.240 xwOBA/.277 xSLG) to hitters flummoxed by his fastball.
Control and command issues (17.7% BB%, 42.3% Zone%, 40.8 F-Strike%) are the biggest hurdles to Hernandez reaching his potential as a late-inning weapon, though his struggles he flashed against right-handers (.319/.462/.472 in 92 PAs) are a worry as well despite the small sample size. If he can improve that element of his game, he could be a valuable fantasy reliever with the potential to grow into a closer at some point.
Middle – Heath Hembree
2019 first-half production: 2.64 ERA, 38 K, 30 IP, 1.11 WHIP. 2019 second-half production: 8.00 ERA, 8 K, 9 IP, 2.00 WHIP. Hembree was white-hot (0.79 ERA, 16 K, 11.1 IP, 0.971 WHIP) in May before an elbow injury forced him on the shelf for several weeks. He was shelled upon his activation and admitted to pitching with pain before going back on the IL in July. Injury risk aside, several other factors make Hembree a risky investment in 2020. His strikeouts (-2.6%) and SwStr% (-2.7) fell last season, and he allowed an incredible 60.4 FB% (+19.1%), which factored into an increased HR/FB% (+3.1 points, 12.5% overall) as well. Hembree should be avoided until the uncertainty over his role and health can be determined.
Middle – Marcus Walden
Walden was a workhorse for the Red Sox in 2019, appearing in 70 games and generating a 3.81 ERA (4.11 SIERA) in 78 IP. Despite generating a high amount of ground balls (53.5%) and posting a mere 2.8 Barrel% (Top 2% in MLB), Walden struggled with the long ball (12.1 HR/FB%), giving up three home runs to batters on each side of the plate. Unless he can improve one of his secondary offerings to match the production of his slider (37.4 K%, 44 Whiff%, 29.1 PutAway%) Walden has limited fantasy appeal.
Middle – Ryan Brasier
The production Brasier showed during the 2018 title run (1.60 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 33.2 IP) flattened out in 2019 (4.85 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 55.2 IP), creating questions about his role in 2020. The main issue? Hitters adjusted, and he was far too hittable in his second MLB season. 9.6% of his pitches were barrelled and his main offering, a four-seam fastball, was torched by batters (.296 xBA/.398 xwOBA/.560 xSLG). He did show improvement in striking out batters (+1.9 K%) but countered that by upping his BB% as well (+3%). Brasier has little to no fantasy value at this point.
Mike Shawaryn, Travis Lakins, Josh Osich
Mike Shawaryn had a rocky MLB debut, posting a 9.74 ERA (4.25 SIERA) and generating a 17.9 HR/FB%. He struck out batters at a good rate (28.2%) and enjoyed a strong chase rate as well (15.6 SwStr%). He’s likely nothing more than a multi-inning reliever unless something changes. Travis Lakins offered solid production in 23.1 IP (3.86 ERA, 5.01 SIERA), albeit with limited strikeouts (17.7 K%, 10.5 SwStr%). He has struggled to stay healthy (career-high 91 IP in 2016) in his career and could benefit from full-time relieving if he snatches a role in 2020, though his upside is limited. Josh Osich spent 2019 with the Chicago White Sox, tossing 67.1 innings of 4.66 ERA (3.93 SIERA) ball. He owns an interesting slider (38.1 K%, 48.8 Whiff%, 30.8 PutAway%) that gained effectiveness after more usage in 2019 (11.4% usage in 2019, 7.5% usage in 2018).
Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)