The Red Sox bullpen is one of mystery. Aside from automatic closer Craig Kimbrel, it’s comprised of guys like Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly, who are all very hit-or-miss; we’re never too sure what we’re going to get when they walk through the bullpen doors and make the trek to the mound. Despite those uncertainties, though, they proved themselves more than capable last year, becoming one of the best relief corps in all of baseball. That same ambiguity is very present again this season, and the addition of two intriguing arms makes this situation all the more exciting and enigmatic.
Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg will both be healthy this year, something we in Red Sox Nation have never been able to say. Each was a very exciting acquisition at the time of their respective obtainments as both were considered a top reliever at one point in time, but they’ve both battled injuries for over a year. Smith underwent Tommy John surgery about two years ago and only returned in September of last year, while Thornburg has been dealing with a shoulder injury since February of 2017, and they’re both entering the new season with an aura of cautious optimism.
Thornburg, a converted starter, has spent only 3 seasons as a full-time reliever (all with the Brewers). His first two years were a mixed bag. His 4.25 ERA in 2014 improved a bit to 3.67 in 2015. He struggled with control, amassing over over 6 BB/9 and 3 BB/9, respectively, in those same seasons. In 2016, though, he caught fire and dominated the NL to the tune of a 2.15 ERA and a stellar .940 WHIP over 67 IP. He still had control issues (again over 3 BB/9), but he was able to deflect that problem by ramping up his strike outs to a rate of 12.1 K/9, causing missed swings on almost 25% of his fastballs and 43% of his curveballs.
If Thornburg is Boston’s biggest question, Smith is perhaps their most compelling. In his only year with any significant playing time, the now 28-year old right-hander dominated for Seattle in 2015. His 11.8 K/9 and 4.18 K/BB ratio paved the way for a 2.31 ERA and a 1.014 WHIP over 70 IP. He then missed almost two full seasons with that elbow injury, only returning in September of last year to pitch 6.2 strong innings over 8 appearances, a very encouraging sign for the organization. With an elite sinker that hits around 93 on the gun, he’s an ideal type of reliever for a hitter’s park like Fenway, and barring any setbacks he’s expected to play a pivotal role late in games for this year’s squad.
It’s assumed that both men will provide meaningful work at the back end of games in 2018, acting as a bridge to Kimbrel and perhaps playing critical roles in a possible pennant run.