Drellich: No use pretending Red Sox bullpen is fine

Evan Drellich
NBC Sports Boston

BOSTON - The Red Sox could have been better prepared for the loss of a set-up man. How the injury occurred is irrelevant, because something can always go wrong.

No one could have predicted that Carson Smith would throw away at least a chunk of the 2018 season by throwing his glove. Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski on Tuesday described Smith's injury, a shoulder subluxation he suffered when he fired his mitt in anger on Monday, as potentially major. A second opinion is in the works for the righthander, and he's already on the disabled list.

But the circumstances of the injury - a poor choice and a freak accident that Smith thought was aided by fatigue - ultimately don't affect the team's direction and readiness to adapt. Were Smith hurt in a more routine fashion, the club's position would be the same: poorly prepared.

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The team's greatest weakness prior to Tuesday was the bullpen. That was true on Opening Day as well. The fact that the Red Sox did not add anyone this winter suggests the Sox either did not reasonably assess their bullpen, or that they chose to move forward with a known hole.

Dombrowski has a payroll close to $237 million for luxury tax purposes, the highest in baseball. Apparently, that doesn't buy playoff-caliber bullpen depth. Addison Reed departed this winter as a free agent - he wasn't likely to come back here because of his own preferences - and the Sox added no one. Dombrowski said over the winter he wanted a lefty reliever, but inked neither a lefty nor a righty.

Smith was "a main guy," as Dombrowski put it in December when explaining why the Sox didn't need to add other righties.

Over the winter, the Sox could have added a reliever for only dollars. Doing so would not have been super easy, as the team pursued J.D. Martinez and attempted to stay below that $237 million mark. But there is such a thing as clearing payroll in creative ways.

Now, to add a reliever in-season, it'll cost a prospect, if not multiple - and Dombrowski still has that luxury-tax figure to contend with.

If you are to believe what Dombrowski said publicly on Tuesday, however, the Sox are doing just fine.

"It's really not," Dombrowski said when asked if the set-up role is an area of concern. "I know that some people continue to point to that. But we feel comfortable. Joe Kelly's thrown very well. I think any time a guy has a bad outing, people write about it. But he's had many more good outings then he's had bad. We really like him, that he's done - I mean, he's done a phenomenal job after that first game. 

"Maybe he had an outing or two that hasn't been shutdown-shutdown, but he's about one of the best bullpen guys in the league since that time. We do like Tyler Thornburg a great deal, and he's coming back. So no, not really."

Thornburg is indeed on his way back. But, the Sox have him shut down for at least a short period because his velocity dropped in his most recent outing, at Triple-A Pawtucket on Monday. Dombrowski said that Thornburg feels fine physically.

"It's not easy where he's coming from, and everything has been smooth so far," manager Alex Cora said. "Just an obstacle now for him which shut him down for a few days and he'll be back but I talked to him last night and he feels positive, it's just a bad day. And they're going to have bad days. 

"The thing is that obviously he's coming from injury, and you don't like to see that. But it's part of the process, and coming into it we knew at some point it was going to happen. So hopefully when he comes back, he gets his stuff back, he can get people out, and he keeps improving."

Even if Thornburg can be added to the major league roster soon, the Sox should be leery of how much they can rely on him, particularly out of the gate.

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If you've followed Dombrowski's time with the Red Sox, you may have noticed a pattern: he will often downplay or outright refute the team has an area of need, no matter how obvious the deficiency. Then, eventually, he will address that area of need in some way or another. The latter is what matters, in the end.

There was posturing offseason with J.D. Martinez and the offense. It happened last year at the trade deadline with the bullpen, too, and then as mid-July rolled around, Dombrowski acknowledged what everyone knew. When Smith was lost for the year in 2016, Dombrowski played it cool then as well.

But Dombrowski's inclination to point to the sky and describe it as green is bizarre. Leverage really is not at stake. He can acknowledge the obvious while not appearing desperate, or insulting the players already on the team.

None of the 29 other teams will look at Tuesday's news and believe the Sox are comfortable with their relief situation. When Dombrowski or his people start asking other teams about relievers, those are teams won't sit back and go, "Hmm, I bet they're not really interested in relievers."

Maybe Dombrowski is comfortable the Sox can win a Wild Card with this 'pen. Maybe even a division. But posturing alone won't make this bullpen World Series-caliber.

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