The Red Sox Bullpen Experiment Needs to End


There were eyebrows raised around the league when the Boston Red Sox decided against re-signing Craig Kimbrel, the closer who contributed to the team’s World Series championship. While Kimbrel was inconsistent and gave fans a heart attack every other save, he was still an above-average closer. Boston not only declined to retain Kimbrel, they didn’t sign a replacement closer.

Instead, they have attempted to adopt a closer-by-committee strategy, with Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier as the interchangeable arms to close games. It didn’t make a big difference early on, since the team’s struggles at the start of the season rarely meant either pitcher found themselves in a high-pressure save situation. As the season has gone on and the Sox have evened out, it’s become more and more clear this strategy was unreliable, even on the best of days. Nothing exemplified that quite like last night, where the Sox bullpen (and specifically Brasier) blew a David Price gem and gave up seven runs in the last three innings.

Brasier got absolutely smoked and gave up two home runs, along with the lead, without getting an out.  Back in April, Chris Smith of MassLive told The Big Lead this closer-by-committee experiment could work because Barnes and Brasier were talented enough to do so. For the most part, he’s proven to be right. Both have shown they have the stuff to take on big-league hitters. But neither has shown they can be relied on, without a doubt, to get three outs when the team needs it most. Yes, it’s still May, and Boston has a strong enough team that those don’t matter as much in the grand scheme of things. But it doesn’t inspire confidence for when the stakes are highest.

The sky isn’t falling yet. There is an impact, however, in not having a designated closer. Guys don’t know when they’re going to pitch, which is part of the deal with coming out of the bullpen. But there’s a difference between not knowing if you’ll pitch in the sixth or seventh and not knowing if you’ll pitch in the ninth with a one-run lead in the playoffs. There’s a certain mentality that not every player has when it comes to pitching high-leverage spots. Throwing Barnes, Brasier, and whoever else they have in the bullpen into a trial-by-fire situation could yield dividends, to be sure. It’s also much harder and less reliable than trading for or signing an old-school closer, even as a contingency plan for October.

Every championship team has had a designated closer to some degree. What the Red Sox are doing presents an interesting idea, but there’s no precedent to suggest it helps achieve the high level of success a team defending their title looks to reach. At the end of the day, it does nothing but save the team money. This isn’t to suggest Boston’s front office should dial up Kimbrel’s agent right now, but the team will be better off with a true closer. Maybe even naming Brasier or Barnes the outright closer would help. But right now, they don’t have one.