BOSTON — By now, this all must be starting to look ominously familiar to Dave Dombrowski.
For years, he built competitive teams in Detroit, with potent offenses and ace-filled starting rotations. Each season, though, the Tigers’ World Series aspirations fizzled in large part because of bullpens that through rotten luck or poor planning were inadequate. From 2011 to 2014, when Dombrowski’s clubs won four division titles, his relievers ranked 26th in the majors in ERA (4.00), 25th in walks per nine innings (3.83), 24th in left-on-base percentage (72.9) and 24th in wins above replacement (9.0).
All of which brings us to this season, Dombrowski’s first full year in charge of the Boston Red Sox’s baseball operations. The Sox have a lineup that rakes and a rotation that has pitched far more reliably since the All-Star break. But the bullpen is threatening to undermine their chances of reaching the postseason, or at least of advancing deep into October.
On Sunday night, it was right-hander Matt Barnes who got rocked in a 10-4 loss to the Kansas City Royals. Barnes entered in the sixth inning, the Sox having just taken a two-run lead, and inherited a bases-loaded, one-out jam from starter Eduardo Rodriguez. He gave up a 30-foot chopper to Alcides Escobar that drove in one run, then threw a first-pitch fastball that .184-hitting Raul Mondesi lined to the gap in right-center for a three-run triple that put the Royals ahead 6-4. Barnes was charged with five runs and didn’t record an out, leaving his ERA in August at 11.17 in 11 appearances.
Barnes isn’t alone. Right-hander Junichi Tazawa and lefty Fernando Abad, both of whom were considered late-inning options for manager John Farrell when the month began, have posted August ERAs of 10.00 and 5.63, respectively, and have been relegated to low-leverage roles.
“It’s a long season. You’re going to go through bumps,” Barnes said. “It gets magnified a bit coming down the stretch. Everyone is going to have an off night. That happens. You’re going to go through that week or two-week struggle. That’s why there are seven guys out there, eight guys at times. When one guy is struggling or dragging, the other six guys or seven guys pick him up.”
Problem is, Farrell doesn’t trust enough relievers in critical situations. The bullpen is in a state of chaos, with nobody other than closer Craig Kimbrel knowing quite when they will be used.
Here, then, are a few ways Boston’s bullpen issues might be resolved before they bring down another Dombrowski-run team:
1. Koji Uehara rides in from the disabled list.
Three years ago, Uehara saved the bullpen by taking over as the closer in late June and going 20-for-22 in save opportunities with a 0.41 ERA, 59 strikeouts and only two walks in 44-1/3 innings. He continued his dominance straight through the World Series, clinching the championship with a strikeout of the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter.
But Uehara is 41 now and hasn’t pitched since July 19 because of a strained right pectoral. Even before he got injured, he was in the midst of his worst season since coming to the big leagues from Japan in 2009, with a 4.50 ERA and eight homers allowed in 36 innings. And when he was placed on the disabled list, the Red Sox labeled the injury “unique” and made clear that they couldn’t bank on him coming back before the end of the season.
So, although Uehara has been throwing bullpen sessions and might even progress to facing hitters in a live batting-practice environment later this week, it would be a leap of faith to believe he can step back into the eighth-inning role and be lights-out again.
Then again, who predicted his dominance in 2013?
Less than two months ago, Farrell said publicly he was uncomfortable using Buchholz in anything other than a mop-up role. Now, against all odds, the longtime starter will get another chance to play a valuable role, even if it’s an unfamiliar one.
After being removed from the rotation in late May, Buchholz was watching video when he realized his release point had dropped dramatically since the end of the 2013 season. He worked to correct the problem and has pitched far more effectively, be it out of the bullpen or as a spot starter.
Kelly, meanwhile, has the power fastball to be successful as a late-inning reliever. And since he was moved to the bullpen in Pawtucket, he has allowed one run in 15 innings and posted a 23-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Kelly has pitched so well, in fact, that it’s worth wondering why the Red Sox haven’t recalled him yet.
“He will help us, yes,” Farrell said. “And yet there’s not a whole lot of flexibility with the current pitching staff in terms of movement to get another guy here.”
Eventually, Kelly will rejoin the team. And if he continues doing what he has done in Pawtucket, he could be an X-factor.
3. The Red Sox find help from the outside.
Dombrowski traded for submarining right-hander Brad Ziegler on July 9, then made only one addition to the bullpen at the trade deadline by acquiring Abad from the Twins. By now, he must know that wasn’t enough.
The Red Sox have spoken with former closer Jonathan Papelbon, a free agent since he requested and received his release from the Nationals two weeks ago. But nothing has materialized, and the longer Papelbon goes without signing somewhere, the louder the speculation that he won’t pitch again this season.
Dombrowski still has a few days to scour the waiver wire. Within the past week, the Nationals made a deal for veteran lefty Marc Rzepczynski and the Orioles signed right-hander Tommy Hunter, both of whom have been effective big league relievers at various points in their careers.
Could the Red Sox find bullpen help on the waiver scrap heap?
At this point, it can’t hurt to try.