Who will lock down setup role for Red Sox?


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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Among a deep crew of righty relievers for the Red Sox, the big question entering camp is who among them will emerge into elite closer Craig Kimbrel‘s primary setup man.

Addison Reed was brought on to do that job at the non-waiver Trade Deadline last season, but he departed as a free agent and signed with the Twins.

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Among a deep crew of righty relievers for the Red Sox, the big question entering camp is who among them will emerge into elite closer Craig Kimbrel‘s primary setup man.

Addison Reed was brought on to do that job at the non-waiver Trade Deadline last season, but he departed as a free agent and signed with the Twins.

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President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski didn’t replace Reed because he believes someone will emerge from the internal candidates, who include Carson Smith, Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes.

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Tyler Thornburg could eventually become a candidate as well, but he will be brought along slower than the other relievers in camp after missing all of last season following surgery to repair thoracic outlet syndrome.

Smith, the side-winder, was brought over to the Red Sox in a trade with the Mariners in December 2015, so he could be Boston’s eighth-inning guy in front of Kimbrel.

But Smith’s elbow woes started soon after his first Spring Training with the Red Sox, and he underwent Tommy John surgery in May 2016. In his first two seasons for Boston, Smith pitched a total of just 13 games, the last two of which were in the American League Division Series against the Astros back in October.

However, Smith is a full go entering Spring Training and thinks he is ready to earn back the job that was supposed to be his two years ago.

“That’s definitely my goal,” Smith said. “I know I have work to do [after] taking almost a year and a half off — I have to earn it. We have a really good bullpen and a lot of competition down there, and I’m going to do my best to fill whatever role they want.”

Smith could be a good fit for the eighth inning because he’s more of a one-inning pitcher than Kelly and Barnes, two former starters who are well-suited to go multiple innings when needed.

Cora era set to begin for Boston

But there is also value in using Smith at times as a one-batter specialist to either get a strikeout or a double play. If manager Alex Cora deems Smith more valuable in that role, he could give the eighth-inning job to one of the other candidates.

Because Kelly has taken so well to being a reliever, it’s easy to forget that this will be just his second season doing it on a full-time basis. Moving Kelly to the bullpen clearly has enabled him to max out his velocity. He edged out Kimbrel as Boston’s hardest thrower last season, averaging 99 mph on his two-seam fastball.

Video: BOS@NYM: Kelly ties for hardest thrown pitch of 2017

To be the eighth-inning reliever the Red Sox can depend on to set up Kimbrel, Kelly needs to be more consistent than he was last year, when he had a 1.49 ERA in 34 games before the All-Star break and a 4.98 ERA after the break, when he was coming off a groin injury that forced him to the disabled list.

“I’ll definitely feel more comfortable with the full season of being focused on being a reliever,” said Kelly. “The second go-around, there’s things that I learned throughout the season that I needed to do obviously to try to stay healthy. So I think going into this season I know exactly what’s expected, so it’s a little bit easier to game plan for that.”

Kelly would also like to cut down his walks. He had 27 of them in 58 innings last year.

Barnes, who averaged 95.1 mph with his fastball last season, has demonstrated the best durability of the candidates. His overall numbers are better than one might think. In a staff-leading 70 appearances, Barnes had 83 strikeouts in 69 2/3 innings and held opponents to a .224 average. His 3.88 ERA would have been better if not for a September slump in which he gave up six runs in eight innings.

Video: BOS@TB: Barnes ends 7th by getting 5-4-3 double play

This will be the third full season for Barnes in Boston’s bullpen, and it might be his chance to move into a higher-leverage role.

“It’s an ongoing growing process, it really is,” said Barnes. “I feel like there’s a lot of stuff that I learned last year and there were things that I improved on that I wasn’t as good at as the year before. What I kind of take pride in is continuing to get better every year and learning and improving on things.”

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.