Red Sox’ Matt Barnes continues dominant run to begin season by striking out the side on Thursday; ‘He’s going to be a big part of what we’re trying to accomplish,’ Alex Cora says

Seven games into the 2021 season, Red Sox manager Alex Cora has yet to name a closer for his team. But Matt Barnes is certainly making the case to take over that role given how he has performed out of the gate.

The right-hander made his third appearance of the year during the ninth inning of Thursday’s contest against the Orioles in Baltimore. In a nearly-immaculate effort, he needed all of 11 pitches (10 strikes) to punch out the O’s 5-6-7 hitters in order to lock down a 7-3 victory for his side.

“That was amazing, right? Just throwing all those strikes,” Cora said of Barnes’ effort on Thursday. “Velocity. I do believe this is his best fastball, at least of the last three years. The carry. It’s not only up in the zone. It’s actually through the zone and down. The breaking ball is good.”

Of the 11 pitches Barnes threw against Baltimore, seven were curveballs and four were four-seam fastballs. He sat at 94-96 mph with his four-seamer.

Following Thursday’s outing, the veteran reliever has yet to allow a run or hit while striking out nine and yielding just one walk through four innings of work thus far.

Going into Opening Day, Barnes was mired in a competition with fellow righty Adam Ottavino to determine who Boston’s closer would be.

Both hurlers had solid camps and performed well in Grapefruit League play, but Barnes being forced out of action for three days in late March due to a false positive COVID-19 made it appear as though Ottavino had a solid chance at landing the gig.

Instead, Cora has still yet to name a set closer, though the expectation seems to be that Barnes is the man for the job at the moment.

“We’re very happy with him,” said the Sox skipper. “He has matured a lot. He’s going to be a big part of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Barnes, who turns 31 in June, is slated to become a free agent for the first time this winter, so him enjoying a career year in 2021 would certainly be well-received.

The UCONN product has been in the Red Sox organization since 2011 and has stated before that he is open to signing a contract extension to remain with the team he began his professional career with.

(Picture of Matt Barnes: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino continue to impress in spring outings, but Red Sox in ‘no rush’ to name closer, Alex Cora says: ‘Whenever we make the decision, we will’

Red Sox relievers Adam Ottavino and Matt Barnes both got some work in out of the Boston bullpen in the team’s 9-4 loss to the Pirates at JetBlue Park on Sunday afternoon.

Ottavino, responsible for the top half of the sixth inning, allowed one unearned run on one hit and a throwing error.

Barnes, responsible for the top half of the ninth inning, struck out two and needed all of 15 pitches to work a perfect frame of relief.

Following Sunday’s showing, the 35-year-old Ottavino carries with him an ERA of 0.00 and a WHIP of 1.38 through his first four appearances and 4 1/3 innings of the spring.

The 30-year-old Barnes, meanwhile, has also yet to allow an earned run over his first four outings and 4 1/3 innings of work this spring, though he has dealt with less traffic on the base paths than Ottavino has.

Together, the pair of veteran right-handers represent the top two — and really the only two — candidates to open the 2021 season as Boston’s closer.

Despite the fact that Opening Day is now just a little over a week away, Red Sox manager Alex Cora is in no rush to name either of Ottavino or Barnes as his ninth-inning man to kick off the new campaign.

“There’s no rush on doing this,” Cora said Sunday afternoon. “They know it. Right now, they’re working on their craft. Otto pitched the ninth one day, Barnesy did today. Different preparation for both of them. But we’re comfortable with the way they’re throwing the ball, which is good. And whenever we make the decision, we will.”

Neither Barnes (15 career saves) nor Ottavino (19 career saves) have an extensive background in closing out major-league games, but both are open to embracing the role this year, which is understandable since they both can become free-agents this winter.

Both relievers are coming off relatively down years for their standards in 2020, but Cora highlighted on Sunday how impressed he’s been with Barnes at big-league camp thus far.

“Threw the ball well. Good fastball,” Cora said of the UCONN product. “This looks like his best fastball in the last few years. Last year, as you guys know, his velocity was down. He’s been working hard to clean his delivery — more direct to the plate. And he’s been able to do that throughout.”

Per Baseball Savant, Barnes averaged 95.5 mph on his four-seam fastball in 2020, more than a mile per hour less than what he was averaging with it in 2018 and 2019 (96.6 mph). He’s also working on incorporating a splitter — a pitch he threw less than 3% of the time he was on the mound last year — into his repertoire.

“Especially since 2018, when they talk about us, it’s fastballs up, breaking balls down,” said Cora when discussing Barnes’ splitter. “And to have a different look — not only for lefties, I think for righties, too — is a good pitch. He threw it a few times throughout the years. In ’19 he tried it. I don’t know if it was more of a changeup, but it’s something that he always talked about. He’s looking for ways to improve, and the fact that he’s been using it more in spring training is a good sign.”

Barnes attributed the uptick in velocity he’s been enjoying this spring to the fact that he only threw 32 innings of relief last year over the course of the pandemic-shortened 60-game season. He had averaged 66 innings of work per year from 2016 through 2019.

“It’s really when I started playing catch during the offseason this year,” Barnes told reporters earlier this month. “I got to a point where the ball was coming out good — a lot sooner — I felt like because I only threw 23 innings, which is only 33% of a normal year’s workload. So when you take that into account, my arm feels fantastic. It almost feels like I didn’t even pitch last year. So I’m really happy with that; really happy with where I’m at right now.”

(Picture of Matt Barnes: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Matt Barnes, Red Sox closer candidate, impresses with two strikeouts in spring debut

Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes made his first appearance of the spring for Boston as part of Sunday afternoon’s 5-4 defeat at the hands of the Atlanta Braves in North Port.

Working in relief of Garrett Richards and Josh Winckowski in the bottom half of the fourth inning, the veteran right-hander looked sharp in his 2021 debut, as he retired the Braves’ 8-9-1 hitters — Jake Lamb, Cristian Pache, and Ronald Acuna Jr. — in order while needing just 12 pitches to do so.

Recording two strikeouts (one looking, one swinging) in the process of tossing a perfect frame of relief, Barnes worked in a healthy mix of curveballs and high-velocity fastballs on Sunday.

“I felt really comfortable out there,” the 30-year-old hurler said during his in-game media availability. “Felt like my mechanics were working well. Couple of high fastballs got away from me. But overall, the way the ball was coming out, the command of the fastball and the breaking ball, definitely happy.”

Barnes came into camp this spring as a potential closer candidate for Red Sox manager Alex Cora given the experience he gained in that role last year after Brandon Workman was traded to the Phillies.

On the 2020 campaign as a whole, the UCONN product posted a 4.30 ERA and .706 OPS against over 24 appearances out of the Boston bullpen spanning 23 innings of work.

Regardless of how he performs throughout the rest of spring training, Barnes feels as though his body of work in the majors would outweigh what he does this month when it comes to the team’s closer competition.

“I’ll be honest with you,” said Barnes. “I don’t think I’m going to be judged on eight outings in spring training more than the last four or five years worth of work. “If there was something drastic and I was coming out throwing 88 (mph), that’s a topic for a different day. If I come out showing the stuff I’ve had my entire career, I don’t think eight or nine outings in spring training in which I’m building up looking to get ready for the season are going to define the decision and what they want to do.”

Alongside Barnes, another fellow New Englander in Adam Ottavino is also vying for the role as the Sox’ ninth-inning man, though he has yet to make his team debut.

Between the two relievers, Boston has a pair of intriguing arms who bring different skillsets to the table, and both figure to see the majority of their appearances this coming season come late in games regardless of who the closer is.

Barnes, who has accrued 15 career saves over the course of his seven-year big-league career with Boston, had said last week that he would like to close, but Cora does not seem ready to name who his closer will be to kick off the 2021 campaign just yet.

“There’s no frontrunners here,” Cora said Sunday afternoon. “Those guys are going to build up, be ready and we’ll make a decision toward the end of camp.”

Having said that, Cora was still impressed with how Barnes performed in his spring debut against Atlanta to close out the weekend.

“That was impressive,” the Sox skipper stated. “Velocity was up, made some adjustments, and it was a good one for Barnesy. You don’t have to worry too much about him. Physically, he’s always in shape. He’s a guy just like Adam. We’re going to take our time. They know what they need to be ready for the start of the season. But that was impressive. Velocity was up — I think it was a tick up from last year, which is a good sign.”

One reason as to why Barnes’ velocity may be up right now is simply because of how little he pitched last year on account of the 2020 season only being 60 games in length.

As previously mentioned, the former first-round draft pick only pitched 23 innings in 2020. From 2016-2019, he averaged 66 innings of work per season.

“It’s really when I started playing catch during the offseason this year,” Barnes recounted. “I got to a point where the ball was coming out good — a lot sooner — I felt like because I only threw 23 innings, which is only 33% of a normal year’s workload. So when you take that into account, my arm feels fantastic. It almost feels like I didn’t even pitch last year. So I’m really happy with that; really happy with where I’m at right now.”

While Barnes may be pleased with where he is at currently, the flame-throwing righty still has plenty of work to do before Opening Day, so he is going to be sure to not get too ahead of himself between now and then.

“Obviously, you got to be conscious not to try and overdo it,” he said. “Sometimes you feel so great that you push and push, and I got to be conscious that we still have three weeks until the season. I don’t need to go out there and blow it out right now. I got to make sure that I pace myself and that I’m ready for April 1.”

Barnes, who turns 31 in June and will earn $4.5 million this season, is slated to become a free-agent for the first time in his career next winter. He has said that he is open to signing a contract extension to remain with the Red Sox.

(Picture of Matt Barnes: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Red Sox should bolster bullpen by signing veteran reliever Alex Colomé

In signing right-hander Garrett Richards and utilityman Enrique Hernandez to major-league contracts this weekend, the Red Sox have done a solid job in addressing some of the team’s areas of needs.

That, however, does not mean that the job is done quite yet as more additions are likely to be made between now and Opening Day.

One area the Sox could look to address would be bolstering the back end of their bullpen. MassLive.com’s Chris Cotillo even wrote on Saturday that Boston is “pursuing bullpen upgrades.”

While a great deal of veteran, free-agent bullpen arms remain unsigned thanks to a relatively slow-moving market for relievers, one name that sticks out in particular here is Alex Colome.

The 32-year-old right-hander has been linked to the Red Sox on several occasions this month, and is coming off a superb 2020 season in which he posted a 0.81 ERA and 2.97 FIP over 21 appearances and 22 1/3 innings pitched for the White Sox.

He put up those numbers while working with a two-pitch arsenal that consists of a cutter and four-seam fastball that averaged 94.4 mph on the radar gun, per Baseball Savant.

On January 2, FanSided’s Robert Murray tweeted that the Sox were among a handful of teams interested in Colome, while MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand tweeted on January 12 that Boston was “among those in the mix” for the righty’s services.

Bringing on someone of Colome’s caliber would help the Red Sox in at least two ways. First, his addition would surely improve an overworked bullpen that put up the second-worst relievers’ ERA in the American League (5.79) while throwing the most relief innings in baseball (278) last year.

Second, Colome has plenty of experience as a big-league closer, racking up 138 career saves over the course of eight seasons between the White Sox, Mariners, and Rays.

As currently constructed, the Red Sox may already have their closer for the 2021 season in the form of right-hander Matt Barnes, but it would not hurt to add a fallback option there, especially given the fact that Barnes has struggled in that role in the past.

MassLive.com’s Christopher Smith put it best regarding the flame-throwing 30-year-old in the most recent installment of the Fenway Rundown podcast.

“Matt Barnes has struggled throughout his career in that role,” Smith said. “He did take it over last year and he did look pretty good, but he’s a guy that — when you have a full 162-game schedule — often gets tired in the second half [of the season]. He doesn’t produce as much in the second half. You have to be careful with Matt Barnes because he does throw hard, has really good stuff, obviously… But, with him, if he overthrows too much, you got to be careful with him.”

On top of being able to spell Barnes as closer when needed, Colome, having spent more than 11 years in the Rays’ organization from 2007-2018, is likely familiar with Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom to some degree from their time together in Tampa Bay.

That particular connection between Bloom and Colome could work towards improving the Red Sox’ relief corps in 2021, as MLB Trade Rumors predicted back in November that the Dominican hurler would net himself a one-year deal worth approximately $6 million this offseason.

(Picture of Alex Colome: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

After missing out on Tommy Kahnle, could Red Sox pursue former Blue Jays closer Ken Giles in free agency?

Before signing a two-year deal with the Dodgers late last month, right-handed reliever Tommy Kahnle nearly agreed to a contract with the Red Sox. So much so that “the Red Sox were considered the runner-up” for the 31-year-old’s services, per MassLive.com’s Chris Cotillo.

Kahnle, who officially signed a two-year, $4.75 million pact with Los Angeles on December 29, will likely miss the entirety of the 2021 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in August. So, the Dodgers will essentially be paying the veteran hurler to rehab his elbow in his first year with the club in hopes that he will be a quality contributor out of the their bullpen in 2022.

That being said, the Red Sox presumably had this same plan in mind in their pursuit of Kahnle as well. And as noted by Cotillo, their pursuit of the righty “suggests that the club is looking at a wide variety of options to improve its pitching depth, including arms that won’t help in 2021.”

One of those arms available that won’t be immediately ready to help in 2021 would be former Phillies, Astros, and Blue Jays closer Ken Giles.

According to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, Giles “figures to sign the type of two-year deal that teams frequently award pitchers recovering from an elbow reconstruction.” And he “might appeal to clubs that plan to be more competitive and/or financially flexible in ’22, as well as those that might lose their closer to free agency.” 

The 30-year-old right-hander underwent Tommy John surgery on September 30 after making just four appearances out of the Toronto bullpen in 2020.

The year before, his first full season with the Jays, Giles put together a solid 2019 campaign, posting a 1.87 ERA and .574 OPS against over 53 appearances and 53 innings of work while converting 23 of a possible 24 save opportunities.

Right elbow inflammation did cost Giles a decent chunk of time in July, which ultimately prevented the Blue Jays from trading the former seventh-round pick ahead of the 2019 trade deadline.

Around that same time, the Red Sox were reportedly one of several teams in the mix for potentially acquiring Giles.

Nothing may have happened then, and Boston’s baseball operations department may be under new leadership now, but there certainly is a potential match to be made here.

For starters, fellow righty Matt Barnes, who at the moment is slated to be the Sox’ closer this coming season, is set to become a free agent for the first time next winter.

Though Barnes has publicly stated that he is interested in signing an extension with Boston, bringing in Giles on a two-year deal could prove to be an effective contingency plan for 2022.

On top of that, Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said in an interview with WEEI last week that “there’s a lot of players” on his list of potential offseason additions.

“Part of that is a function of where we are, where there’s a lot of ways we can improve. Part of that is how we’re looking to improve,” explained Bloom. “In the short-term, we have touched base with so many different players who we think could help us and fit us. Pitching, obviously, but also on the position player side. I think there’s different ways we can improve and different players we can bring in to help us. We also don’t want to take our eye off of the ball that, at the end of the day, we’re not just looking to put a little plaster in here and patch some holes. We’re looking to take this organization back to where we can compete for championships consistently year in and year out. That means we have to be open to different moves, different acquisitions that might not be just about 2021. I think we have enough talent here that we should be able to compete and win along the way there. But there are some things we’ve explored and some things we’ve kicked around that might be able to impact us even more in future years than they might be in 2021.”

Bringing in Giles would appear to fit the description of a move “that might not just be about 2021” for the Red Sox since, as mentioned before, he will miss all of this year while recovering and rehabbing from Tommy John.

Again, this is just a mere suggestion. I am not implying that the Red Sox will sign or even have any serious interest in signing Giles at some point this winter. We will have to wait and see what happens on that front.

Also, for what it’s worth, the Padres have reportedly traded speedy outfielder Greg Allen to the Yankees, so he will remain on another club’s 40-man roster for the time being.

(Photo of Ken Giles: Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Matt Barnes Not Only Reliever Who Could Close Out Games for Red Sox Following Brandon Workman Trade, Ron Roenicke Says

With Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman now Philadelphia Phillies, a couple late-inning spots just opened up in the back end of the Red Sox bullpen. More specifically, with Workman gone, the Sox do not exactly have a set closer at this point in time.

Right-hander Matt Barnes took charge of that responsibility in Boston’s 8-5 win over the Orioles on Friday and he looked good doing so, needing just 13 pitches to record his first save since last June.

Even with Barnes’ impressive importance fresh in his mind, Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke didn’t really commit to the 30-year-old hurler as his set ninth-inning man moving forward.

“No doubt, I have faith in what he can do,” Roenicke said of Barnes during his postgame media availability. “I probably won’t do it the same way that we did with [Workman] because we had Barnes for the seventh or eighth or somebody and then going to [Workman]. This will be a little bit different, probably. I’m sure [Barnes] will get most of the opportunities, but if it matches up better with him in the eighth inning and another closer in the ninth, we’ll do that. I don’t think I’m just going to limit him to doing it for one inning.”

If it’s Barnes getting the call for the ninth, Roenicke named Austin Brice and Josh Taylor as relievers who could close out games if necassary.

“I think we have a couple guys that could do it,” the Sox skipper added. “I’m comfortable with all of them, so I think the match-ups will tell us what to do there.”

Left-hander Darwinzon Hernandez, who worked two scoreless innings in his 2020 debut on Friday after missing time on the COVID-19 related injured list, could be another candidate to close were it not for the plans the Red Sox have for the 23-year-old hurler.

“The only thing with Darwinzon is because we know he can give us two or three [innings], it may be more important to do that in the…sixth, seventh, or eighth, maybe,” said Roenicke. “I think he is more valuable in doing that than just keeping him to one inning. We’ll see as time goes on, but he was coming out [Friday] for the first time. He threw some nasty pitches. I know sometimes he may get a little wild, but his pitches, you see the swings they take and the bats that break and it’s just really good stuff.”

Out of the 40 pitches Hernandez threw in his first outing on Friday, the Venezuelan got the Orioles to swing and miss seven times. Because he accrued two innings of work against Baltimore, his next outing likely won’t come until the Red Sox’ next series against the Blue Jays in Buffalo.

Putting Craig Kimbrel’s 2017 Season Into Perspective

After being named the Red Sox’ president of baseball operations on August 18th, 2015, one of Dave Dombrowski’s first orders of business in his first offseason at the helm in Boston was to acquire a topnotch closer to supplement the back end of his bullpen.

That November, Dombrowski did just that, as the Red Sox acquired then-four-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel from the San Diego Padres in exchange for a package of four prospects.

With three years of club control remaining after signing a four-year, $42 million extension with the Braves that included a club option for a potential fifth year prior to the start of the 2014 campaign, the Sox were getting one of the best late-inning hurlers in the game in the form of the flame-throwing Kimbrel.

Kimbrel was an All-Star in each of the three seasons he donned a Red Sox uniform, and he capped off his tenure in Boston with his first World Series ring in October 2018.

For this piece specifically though, I’d like to focus on Kimbrel’s 2017 season.

2017 was a rather forgettable year for the Red Sox despite them winning 93 games and the American League East for the second straight year, but Kimbrel was as dominant as ever coming off a somewhat bumpy first year in Boston.

Appearing in 67 games in his age-29 season, Kimbrel posted a 1.43 ERA, a 0.68 WHIP, and a 1.50 xFIP over a nice 69 innings of work. He converted 35 of a possible 39 save opportunities, was named the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year that October, and finished sixth in American League Cy Young voting that November.

To put those numbers into perspective, Kimbrel was worth 3.2 fWAR in 2017, per FanGraphs. Using that metric, that’s the best year any Red Sox reliever has had since at least 1901, which is as far back FanGraphs goes on its leaderboard page.

Out of the 254 batters he faced in 2017, Kimbrel struck out 126, or 49.6%, of them. That’s the highest mark for any reliever to work at least 60 innings in a single season since the turn of the century. In that same time frame, the Alabama native also posted the highest K/9 average in 2017 (16.43). Surprisingly enough, Matt Barnes, who averaged 15.4 punchouts per nine innings last season, is right behind him.

It probably would have been better to write something like this while Kimbrel was actually still on the Red Sox. But with the lack of things to write about lately and all, I thought what the former Sox closer accomplished in 2017 was worth taking another look at.

Now a member of the Chicago Cubs, Kimbrel may not be the dominating late-inning force he once was, but he’s still one of the best to do it in this era. That’s for sure.