Adapting to a Relief Role
By Michael Silverman
BRADENTON -- Last year, Brian Johnson was the closest thing the Red Sox pitching had to a super-utility player like Brock Holt.
Spot starter, swing man, short relief, middle relief, long relief -- Johnson did it all and he did it pretty well, too.
This year, Johnson, along with Hector Velazquez, will likely serve the same role but the difference with Johnson is that this year he knows what he’s going into. Last year was the first time in Johnson’s professional career which began in 2012 in which he served as a reliever. And 25 of his 38 appearances came from the bullpen last year.
It was new and it was different, but this year it won’t be.
“I think last year was a big stepping-stone for me learning how to prep for the bullpen because I had never done that and I was trying to learn mid-season at the big-league level, that was kind of tough for me, I didn’t know how much to throw, stuff along the lines of pregame stuff,” said Johnson after he allowed one run in two inning of work in the Red Sox’ 4-3 loss to the Pirates on Monday. “I remember one time going into Alex’ office and saying ‘I’m figuring this out but I will figure this out.’”
With constant communication with Cora and the coaches, Johnson did figure it out. The dividends could be just as good, if not better, this year.
“The bullpen role, if that’s the case, if we have to throw him out of the bullpen this year, he’ll be better suited to it,” said Cora. “I think he learned a lot as far as being aggressive in the edges of the strike zone. We expect big things out of him.”
Johnson did not make any of the three postseason rosters, but that never became a problem.
“You try to find a way to help,” said Johnson. “I contribute a lot of that to Alex where he communicated so well, when he told me I wasn’t going to be on the roster I wasn’t like ‘Oh my god.’ We had talked, throughout whole year, even some outings I came out at 4 2/3 (innings) he had talked to me and it wasn’t like I was being blindsided. Throughout year he did great job of communicating with me and I think he did that with the whole team.”
Cora surprised nobody by leaving off Johnson from the postseason roster. He also understands how vital he was for the team to make the postseason.
“Him and Hector last year, they were like our MVPs,” said Cora. “Without those two, we don’t win the World Series. What they did since the fourth game of the season all the way to the end, starting games, high-leverage situations, up 10, down 6, whatever. They were amazing. They were available. They never complained. Those two guys, they were our saviors throughout the season.”
Having Johnson and Velazquez be available to duplicate their roles again this year matters a great deal to Cora.
“I’m a big believer that that’s needed nowadays,” said Cora. “Coming into the situation last year, that was something I talked to Dave (Dombrowski), we needed guys who could go multiple innings. It’s tough to survive just with guys that go one inning or lefties that only get lefties out. It’s not that easy nowadays so I’d rather have two guys that can go multiple innings then actually have guys that their specialty is to get right-handed or left-handed hitters.”
Bryce Brentz homered in the second inning. The Red Sox led 3-1 heading into the bottom of the eighth before reliever Jhonathan Diaz allowed three runs.
In Dunedin against the Blue Jays on Tuesday, Mike Shawaryn will start, with Josh Taylor and Darwinzon Hernandez in relief.
Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski threw cold water on the hopes of anyone still thinking that free agent closer Craig Kimbrel, still unsigned,will return.
“As far as signings are concerned, I would say we’re through at this point,” said Dombrowski. “That doesn’t mean that won’t be a priority just because of how we shape up. It’s something to kind of follow in spring training as you follow other things, I can’t rule that out. We don’t have anything going outside the organization. We stay in contact with people and see if there is anything that becomes a situation that makes sense.”
Dombrowski said he thinks it’s too early to start making evaluations about how the bullpen is shaping up. But he did not sound as if there was some glaring need the club would have to fill from the outside.
“I think so, sure,” said Dombrowski about not having to seek external options. “We just have to continue to monitor and see what takes place. We haven’t even seen the guys perform in games so nothing has really changed. But we continue to feel that way.”
Still, if the right “bargain” came along, the Red Sox would consider acting upon it, but only for the bullpen.
“Positional-player wise, I don’t even know that we have room, and starting pitcher-wise we definitely don’t have room, so I guess it just depends on what bargains we’re talking about,” said Dombrowski. “You’re always interested in a bargain, I guess, per se.”
In split-squad action on Wednesday, Rafael Devers and Andrew Benintendi are expected to make the short trip north to play against the Rays, with Mookie Betts making his debut at JetBlue Park against the Orioles. Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts will also see action against Baltimore. Eduardo Rodriguez will start and Christian Vazquez will catch him. Bogaerts will also start Thursday against the Nationals.
It sounds as if J.D. Martinez, Mitch Moreland and Steve Pearce will all make their debuts. Martinez could start Saturday and be off Sunday, since he is scheduled to play in both games on the East Coast in Port St. Lucie and West Palm Springs next Monday and Tuesday. Benintendi, Vazquez and Devers will also travel to the East Coast.
The club is keeping a close eye on Pearce and Moreland to ensure they don’t get overused this spring. Pearce has a track record of getting injured in the spring.
Chris Sale and David Price, who each threw bullpens in Fort Myers, are set to make their debuts in mid-March, around March 14, said Cora.
No word on when reliever Jenrry Mejia will make his debut.
“I think he got here two days ago, I know he pitched all the way up to the Caribbean Series, so maybe I think he might be around this week maybe,” said Cora.
Ryan Brasier’s infected toe is on the mend. “We feel it’s fine, just clearing up,” said Cora.
There’s no concern yet there’s also no progress with Steven Wright, still on the mend from knee surgery in November, his second in a year.
Wright is still just playing catch.
“He’s’ pretty much where we thought he would be,” said Cora. “I’m not really taken back at where he is at this time. In Steven’s case, as is with Dustin’s (Pedroia) case, there is always going to be some concern until they get out there and they perform. But I’m not caught by surprise with either one of them. They’re about where we anticipated. We’ll just continue to monitor them.”
On the one-year anniversary of the signing of J.D. Martinez, Dombrowski reported little to no action on the catchers’ trade front.
“There are some catchers that aren’t even signed yet,” said Dombrowski. “I learned a long time ago you don’t worry about what you can’t control. We’ll just continue to play.”