Red Sox repeat? It all hinges on relief

March 6th, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- In the history of the Boston Red Sox, they have repeated once as World Series champions. It happened 103 years ago. They won in 1915 and then again in ’16 and won two years later, before the Red Sox -- and famously -- went 86 years without winning another World Series in the last century. Now they have their fourth chance to repeat in this century, coming off the greatest single season in the team’s history.

But “repeat” might not be the word you read and hear most often around the 2019 Red Sox, coming off 108 regular-season victories and then 11 more in the postseason, when their record was a fancy 11-3. The word you hear most often as the Red Sox try to do it again is this one:


On Tuesday afternoon as the Red Sox played the Nationals in West Palm, Dave Dombrowksi sat a few rows behind home plate wearing a yellow striped polo shirt, and he had a very nice time for himself, watching the team the Red Sox sent to the East Coast of Florida even bounce around the great Max Scherzer on the way to a seven-run fourth inning and eventual 8-4 victory. A year ago, in this same ballpark, made his first Spring Training start for the Red Sox, eight months before he would come out of Alex Cora’s bullpen against the Dodgers and strike out the side for the last three outs of the World Series.

That night, the guy who began the season as the Red Sox ace became the most dominant closer in the game. On Wednesday morning I asked Dombrowski if he has ever heard the word “bullpen” more in his life than he has the past few months, now that his closer from last year, Craig Kimbrel, is still a free agent and likely not returning to the Red Sox, and Joe Kelly, one of the bullpen stars of the postseason for the ’18 Sox, is with the Dodgers.

“In regards to the bullpen, not necessarily,” Dombrowski said. “The bullpen topic has come up frequently throughout my career. With our club, and some other clubs in the past, when you have a good starting rotation and solid positional players, it is the one area left to get attention.”

The follow-up question involved that starting rotation, Sale and and and , who was as much a pitching star for the Red Sox last October as Price was. The question was this: Does the strength of the rotation alleviate some of the concerns of Red Sox Nation about the bullpen?

Dombrowski: “Our rotation is solid and should help our pen throughout the year due to their ability to pitch deeper into the game. However, we still need our bullpen to step up in order to win a championship.”

The conversation about the Red Sox bullpen, of course, does not occur in a vacuum. More precisely, it occurs in the American League East, and it occurs because to repeat just as champions of the East, the Red Sox will have to beat the Yankees across another season of Ultimate Baseball Fighting in that rivalry. During the offseason, the Yankees lost David Robertson from their own bullpen, but they re-signed Zack Britton and added Adam Ottavino to Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Chad Green. Even though Ottavino is not all that much better than Robertson, it is why the Yankee bullpen is discussed as if it is another branch of the Armed Services.

The Red Sox? Right now their closer is expected to be either or , who began last season in the Minor Leagues before becoming one of the pleasant surprises of Boston’s championship run. Do the Red Sox have the Yankees beat in the rotation? If their starters stay healthy they do, and by a lot, especially with the current concerns about the pitching shoulder of the Yankee ace, Luis Severino. In Price and Porcello, the Red Sox have former Cy Young Award winners. Sale has been knocking on the door to win a Cy Young himself for years. And if you watched the postseason you know: Eovaldi looked as if he had a bigger arm than all of them.

Still, Red Sox fans experience bullpen envy when they look at the Yankees. At the same time, Sox fans are thinking how happy the Yankees will be to shorten games while Red Sox starters are looking to give their team the length about which Dombrowski spoke. The subject has become the dark cloud even on sun-splashed Spring Training afternoons like the one the Sox had in West Palm on Tuesday.

Three weeks from Opening Day, I asked Dombrowski if he and Alex Cora have an idea about how they think the guys they currently have in their bullpen are going to line up once the season does start.

Dombrowski: “We have not made decisions at this time how the 'pen guys are going to line up during the season.”

You know how Cora made it work in October. He pitched all of the stars of his rotation, Sale and Price and Porcello and Eovaldi, out of the bullpen. Cora was absolutely brilliant with the use of his whole staff, in one of the great managing jobs in October history, all the way to Sale finally striking out Manny Machado to end the Series.

In a short season, Cora somehow turned his starting rotation into the best bullpen in baseball. It really was magic. Now, with a much longer season about to begin in three weeks, Cora is asked to work more magic. And not pull a rabbit out of his hat. Just a closer.