Matt Barnes Fighting for Opening Day Roster Spot

matt barnes

With Boston’s bullpen still a very big question mark less than two weeks from Opening Day, Matt Barnes is doing everything he can to prove his worth as a big league pitcher.

Barnes entered Saturday’s contest against the Tampa Bay Rays at Charolette Sports Park with two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning, replacing knuckle baller Steven Wright. He promptly got Asdrubal Cabrera to roll a ground ball to shortstop Xander Matt Barnes Bogaerts, who forced out Steven Souza Jr. at second base to retire the side.

The 24-year old Danbury, CT native returned to the mound for the bottom of the fifth, and promptly retired Evan Longoria, James Loney and Desmond Jennings in order.

After Brandon Guyer started the bottom of the sixth frame with a double to left field, Barnes was able to retire Logan Forsythe, Curt Casali and John Jaso on three consecutive strikes outs.

Barnes finished the day with 2 2/3 innings pitched, allowing a single hit and striking out four. In seven Spring Training games, he owns a 0-1 record to go with a 5.25 ERA, but has held opponents to just a .227 batting average, and has posted an impressive 1.08 WHIP.

Although there is a very real possibility Barnes ends up on the Opening Day roster, he is trying only to focus on the things he can control personally.

“I’m not trying to think about that at all,” stated Barnes in an interview with MLB.com’s Ian Browne. “If you start thinking about that, I’m getting ahead of myself.

“The only thing I can control is going out there and pitching. I’m focusing on that, getting my work in between outings, and letting the rest take care of itself. I feel happy with how I’ve thrown the ball. We’ll just let the management make the decision on that.”

Red Sox manager John Farrell was impressed with Barnes’ outing, especially coming in a true relief scenario.

“I thought he was very good. He gives up the 1-2 double and then records the three strikeouts following that [in the sixth inning],” Farrell told Browne. “Went to his curveball a little bit more to get some swing and miss against some quality major league hitters. He looks poised coming in for the middle of an inning. That’s the first time he’s come in with men on base. It’s a quick out to end the threat. He looked fine.”

With the clock ticking towards the start of the season, and the Red Sox still facing several questions regarding their bullpen, there is a good chance we will see Matt Barnes in the big leagues at some point this season, if not on Opening Day.

It’s the Pitching Stupid!

pitching

For most of their history, the Red Sox have been known for assembling teams best equipped to take advantage of Fenway’s “cozy confines” and of course the looming presence of the Green Monster in left. Powerful right-handed hitters were at a premium and offense was the centerpiece of most Sox clubs. But times have changed. First, under Theo Epstein and continuing under Ben Cherington, it’s the ability to put together a deep pitching staff first that marks the nature of the team. The pitching staff of the 2014 Sox may be its best in years.

In 2013, it was the consistency of their pitching, augmented by timely, clutch hitting that made the Sox World Champions. The pitching? Just really deep and consistent. Aided by the return to good health of Clay Buchholz and the addition of some new arms to what was already the American League’s best bullpen, the Sox pitching should be the team’s greatest strength this year.

In Jon Lester, John Lackey and Jake Peavy, the Sox have three professionals who’ll keep them in most games. Lester, at only 30, looks to be getting only better. A completely healthy Buchholz, turns the starters into perhaps the second best (behind only the Rays) group in the League. He was 9-0 when he went down last June and he has the best natural stuff on the team. Buchholz ended the year with a 1.74 ERA and has thrown well in Spring Training. Only the lefty Felix Doubront is a question mark among the starters. Still only 25, Doubront filled in for Buchholz admirably in the rotation last year and won 11 games. But he’s struggled in Spring Training and is prone to wildness. Doubront does have terrific stuff, however. If he struggles, look for last year’s surprise Brandon Workman or veteran lefty Chris Capuano to capably take the fifth spot.

It’s the bullpen, though that really sets the Red Sox staff apart. I doubt that anybody not named Uehara could possibly replicate what he did in 2013. Once he assumed the closer’s role, his numbers were other-worldly. But Koji hasn’t allowed a run thus far in Spring Training, and of course he doesn’t walk anybody The two-headed 8th inning monster of Tazawa and Breslow will be back, in a right-handed/left-handed combination that John Farrell used to devastating effect last year. Breslow is assumed to be healthy, although he’s going to start the year in Pawtucket to get in some innings.

Andrew Miller returns from an injured foot, and the big lefty simply is death on left-handed hitters and can be a strike-out machine. I think the Fenway faithful are going to love Burke Badenhop, acquired from the Brewers. His sinker is a notorious killer of earthworms and he throws strikes. Workman and Capueno will initially work out of the pen. Perhaps most importantly, Mike Mujica comes over from the Cardinals. The Cardinal’s closer for 2/3 of the season last year, he had 37 saves until he wore down. It seems to me that he’ll pitch in any high-leverage situation prior to Uehara and he could make for a real difference maker.

As the old saying goes, “good pitching always beats good hitting,” and the 2014 Sox have it.

Red Sox Strength Is Their Strong Bullpen

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Boston Red Sox Manager John Farrell will have to worry about a few things regarding the Red Sox this season, but the bullpen will not be one of them.

The Red Sox had one of the better bullpens in baseball last season with closer Koji Uehara and set-up man Junichi Tazawa, but the bullpen looks to be even better in 2014. Not only will Uehara, Tazawa and Andrew Miller return, but the team acquired Burke Badenhop and Edward Mujica over the offseason.

Badenhop was traded from the Milwaukee Brewers last November. He has been a dependable reliever no matter what team he has been with as Badenhop has thrown at least 60 innings in each of the last five years. The last two seasons he has the same number of innings, same walks, same strikeouts, same home runs allowed with one fewer hit in 2013.

Mujica signed a two-year deal with the Red Sox for $9.5 million this offseason. The Red Sox will expect him to setup Uehara, but he can be an option if Uehara isn’t available. Mujica converted his first 21 save opportunities with the St. Louis Cardinals last season until finally blowing one on July 4 in L.A. He entered September, having 35 saves in 37 chances, with a 1.72 ERA.

Miller’s return from injury will also provide the Red Sox with excellent depth in the bullpen. Last July, he tore ligaments in his foot and was out for the remainder of the 2013 season. Prior to Miller’s injury, he was having the best season of his career as he posted a 2.64 ERA in 37 games. Not only could Miller be a six, seventh or eighth inning reliever, he could also be the fill-in reliever when neither Uehara nor Mujica are available.

Many teams go into the season with questions about their bullpen, but it is the strength of the Red Sox. If they are to repeat as World Series Champions, expect relievers Uehara, Tazawa, Miller, Mujica and Badenhop to have a lot to do with it.

Holy Carp and Set-Up Men Off the Hook Again

mike carp holy carp

Wow, Mike Carp, just WOW! Instead of “Holy Mackerel,” the people of Boston should say “Holy CARP!” from here on out. Who knew he had it in him?

Last Wednesday was a perfect example of the Red Sox down in runs, then pulling themselves up by their offensive bootstraps to earn the win. The comparisons to the 2004 team, though hackneyed at this point, are seemingly legitimate. After all, when was the last time we saw play like this by our beloved team? Ok, maybe it was a few games ago. I’ll give you that one.

God love Ryan Dempster for consistently earning “no decisions” during his starts in the last month. He must have a horseshoe stashed somewhere on his person. The offense has rallied back for him on a number of those no decision games. I am sure his fellow starting pitchers fume over his luck.

The real problem, which put the Sox into this situation, is the lack of set-up men in the bullpen. The similarities between the middle men on the defensive side and the middle of the lineup on the offensive side are uncanny. There is a dip in performance on both sides. Defensively, what is there to do, but determine through trial and error what the best mixture of pitchers will precede closer Koji Uehara? John Farrell’s calculated changes work for this team. Perhaps changes can help with pitching.

One other question remains with regard to the offense: must we rely on what seems to be a team of clutch hitters to get us through the American League Division Series? It seems the answer is “Yes.” These guys have a dramatic flair. Games are not over till them over; thus is the fight, grit, and stick-to-itiveness of this Red Sox team.

Portland Pitchers Ready for Boston?

portland pitchers

Hadlock Field Portland, ME Photo courtesy of Kara Jackman

I took a trip up to Portland, ME to see the Portland Sea Dogs, double A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. I talked to a few players, enjoyed my first experience in the press box, sharing it with NESN’s Tom Caron, and talking to the future major leaguers.

portland pitchers

NESN’s Tom Caron at Hadlock Field
Photo Courtesy of Kara Jackman

Enough about me. Let’s talk players. Specifically, let’s talk about pitching. There is something in the water in Portland, ME   Following the Portland pitchers since March, I believe the Portland starters and bullpen may be the answer to Boston’s bullpen and starter questions.  These guys are better than the laundry list of pitchers in Pawtucket. I know this is an arguable point, but it seems the writing is on the wall with regard to Portland. Others seem to feel this to be true, too.  Saturday morning, while watching The Baseball Show on the Comcast Sportsnet, a caller suggested that the Sox bring Anthony Ranaudo up from Portland. Then Sunday night Drake Britton provides pretty solid setup man work for Boston. Tonight, Brandon Workman starts against Tampa.

Let’s bring these guys up, work our system, and stop hemming and hawing about getting a closer in time for the July 31st deadline. It just seems these guys are stronger than some of the PawSox guys. I know I am crazy. I fully admit I should be committed, but I think this is the move.  The other Portland pitcher to watch is Matt Barnes. He may need some more time at Pawtucket. He just needs to tweak accuracy and he knows that; he told me as much. Barnes does his homework, charts batters, so he has the mindset and mental fortitude to do it.

Back to my point, let’s work the system. Guys like Cliff Lee, Matt Garza, and Jake Peavy, are a gamble.  I think we should continue to drink the waters in Portland, ME.

Red Sox Bullpen Needs Starting Strength

Red Sox bullpen

Steven Wright was right on Thursday night!
Courtesy of nesn.com

Yes, I am excited that the Red Sox are winning and are on top of the AL East. I don’t want to sound like a crank. But there is just something missing, and I feel as though it resides in the Red Sox bullpen. Thursday’s series finale against Seattle went well, but it should not have been a squeaker. The offense is there with Ellsbury hitting, Nava scoring the final run, and Ortiz breaking records. The defense was there, too, with Mr. Steven Wright leading us. I knew Wright had the potential to make a difference, and did he ever in Thursday night’s tilt!

But now what?

The good news is management’s flexibility when it comes to pitchers. They have a large pool from which to draw.  Also, they do not hang the starters out to dry, waiting for them to get better.  Pitchers are pulled out before things truly take a turn for the worse. Now Sox coaches just need to figure out the right combinations for the middle and closing innings of the game. They are getting closer with guys like Wright, and possibly Rubby De La Rosa.

We have the pitching depth within our own system to make all our playoff dreams come true. Thursday it worked well, forcing me into fits of confusion. I’m so confused I’m rethinking possible trade targets. I’m now leaning toward a need for a starting pitcher. I do know the Sox need someone that is confident and can command the ball in the early innings, so less pressure weighs on the offense. This will lead to fewer bitten nails, heading into the second inning, on couches all over New England.

Either way, closer or starting pitcher, it is a gamble. Pretty much all trades are, right? What do you think?