Tomase: Red Sox' roster moves are red flags for unsettled bullpen originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The Red Sox roster gained clarity with a flurry of moves impacting primarily the pitching staff and highlighting the unsettled -- and therefore unsettling -- state of the bullpen.
Over the weekend, manager Alex Cora revealed that left-hander Darwinzon Hernandez will open the season at Triple-A Worcester with a mandate of improving his control and eliminating the lows that counteract the electric left-hander's undeniable highs. He also said that veteran lefty Derek Holland did not make the team.
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Then on Monday, Cora announced that rookie right-hander Kutter Crawford had earned a spot in the bullpen and that veteran left-hander Rich Hill will serve as fifth starter, putting last year's breakout star, Garrett Whitlock, back in the bullpen, where he will once again serve as a multi-inning weapon.
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In between all of the roster maneuvering, Cora also explained that closer Matt Barnes has recognized a flaw in his delivery akin to a spinning figure skater opening up too soon and losing their momentum.
Let's take each of these moves and break down what they mean to the relief corps, which is already looking like the make-or-break unit of the roster.
Working backwards, Crawford's ascension definitely qualifies as a surprise, but he represents the start of the next wave of pitching prospects who opened eyes and should get a look in Boston this year, with right-hander Frank German also on the list.
Crawford actually debuted during the great COVID wave that waylaid the team last September, allowing five runs in two innings of a loss to Cleveland. He spent the lockout at his alma mater, Florida Gulf Coast University, working alongside rehabbing Red Sox ace Chris Sale. While decreased velocity has plagued veteran relievers like Barnes and Ryan Brasier, Crawford has consistently topped 95 mph all spring.
"We've been talking about him the whole camp," Cora told reporters in Florida. "Velocity-wise he's up there. The action of his pitches, they're really good. He worked hard. He earned it.
"Coming into this situation early in camp, he had no chance, probably. I don't want to say it that way, but he was a guy, 'Yeah, we'll look at him, but probably better off to go to Triple-A and all that.' But he kept pushing and pushing."
Cora anticipates using Crawford over multiple innings, particularly against right-handed hitters, because he believes Crawford's split-fingered fastball could be a weapon.
"He adds a different mix," Cora said. "That split hopefully will play."
Adjacent to the Crawford decision is the one to keep Whitlock in the bullpen, even though on a club with a more settled back end, he'd be a prime candidate to start. While it's true that the 42-year-old Hill can relieve, he hasn't done so consistently since 2014 and it always made more sense at least to start him in the rotation and see how many miles he has left.
Because Brasier has struggled to find his own consistent 95 mph heat, and because Barnes remains a question mark, Whitlock became not a luxury in the bullpen, but a necessity. No one should be surprised if he ends up closing.
Barnes still owns that job for now, but it's never a good sign when mechanical tinkering carries right up to the eve of the season, and over the weekend Cora used a figure skating metaphor to help explain why Barnes is only throwing 92-93 mph instead of his trademark 95-plus.
Cora described Barnes' leg kick as "loose."
"If you want to use a reference, it's like a figure skater," he told reporters. "When you open, it slows down. When you close, you're actually faster, quicker. So hopefully that's what gets him going. Kind of engaged in his delivery. And then he doesn't have to create. Right now, mechanically he's so off and then he tries to create velocity and it's not there."
One pitcher who rarely struggles to find velocity is Hernandez, but his issue is finding the plate. He has the pure stuff to close, but he has walked nearly a batter an inning for his career and that's not tenable in high-leverage situations.
So Cora sat him down for an emotional discussion explaining the team's decision to send him to Worcester, where he'll make two- or three-inning starts and then focus on consistency in between with Triple-A pitching coach Paul Abbott.
"And that's what he's missing right now," Cora said. "He dominates in Texas and then he struggles for a few weeks. We don't want that. When he's ready, he'll be ready. We know he's going to contribute."
The question of how and when applies not just to Hernandez, but the bullpen as a whole. Did we mention that veterans Hirokazu Sawamura and Jake Diekman haven't looked great this spring, either?
The group that opens the season almost certainly will not be the one that finishes it.