Drellich: Little room for error for Red Sox bullpen hopefuls

February 22, 2017 GMT

FORT MYERS — If recent performance matters, Heath Hembree and Fernando Abad should feel uncomfortable.

But whether recent performance actually matters to the Red Sox isn’t so clear. If the team lets minor league options dictate the bullpen, the seven spots appear set.

Craig Kimbrel, Tyler Thornburg, Joe Kelly and Robbie Ross Jr. are there if healthy. Matt Barnes was important enough last season that, even though he has minor league options and had a rough August, it’s hard to see him anywhere but Fenway Park at the outset.

Hembree and the bust of the trade deadline, Abad, probably will be there, too, because they’re out of options.

There’s your seven.

But this is supposedly a meritocracy, right?

Let’s say lefty Robby Scott, one of last year’s feel-good stories, has a great spring while Abad still looks like a bust. Well, good luck, Mr. Scott.

“He’s a left-handed pitcher with quality stuff,” manager John Farrell said generally of Abad. “You grade out the raw ability, and it’s arm strength, three pitches for strikes. It’s a matter of consistency. The changeup, which he has two of them, we’d prioritize one over the other and try to minimize maybe some exposure to the real slow one. Left-handed pitching is not an easy commodity always to acquire. He’s healthy. He’s got quality stuff.”

Here’s another scenario: Let’s say the Sox want to carry an extra starter in the bullpen to start the year.

Farrell said yesterday that all three of the back-end rotation candidates — Steven Wright, Drew Pomeranz and Eduardo Rodriguez — are on track to be ready by the start of the season. Three guys for two open spots.

“Yes, based on where they are right now,” Farrell said, “with the number of days left in spring training, provided there are no setbacks, we’ll have ample time to get them to the mound to build up their pitch counts with a typical spring training.”

If somehow all three stay healthy and are ready, Rodriguez would probably go to Pawtucket because, surprise, he’s the only one with options. But it’s at least possible the Sox would decide to carry, say, Pomeranz — who has relief experience — in the ’pen for a time.

Who’s the odd man out?

Abad, who will earn $2 million after losing his arbitration case, had a 6.39 ERA after the Red Sox traded for him at the deadline. He averaged 3.7 walks per nine innings with the Minnesota Twins, his first-half club, and that jumped to 5.7 walks per nine with the Sox.

“He knows I’m ready. He knows I’m a good pitcher in Dominican winter ball,” Abad said of Farrell. “I think sometimes I throw the wrong pitch in the count. That’s why you pay the price. I try to not be the same (with my pitch choices) because you have to be different to both sides.”

Keeping the ball away to right-handed hitters would be a help, although he hasn’t proven long-term he can do as well against righties as he can lefties. Abad isn’t like a lefty version of Koji Uehara, who could neutralize both sides of the plate.

The right-handed Hembree, meanwhile, was really strong against righties, holding them to a .201 average. But lefties hit .338 against him.

Even with Hembree’s overall ERA of 2.65, a righty specialist isn’t what you want.

Location’s the focus now.

“Most of the fastballs I threw, I might have thrown it 70 percent (of the time), but I threw all the fastballs away,” Hembree said. “I never brought one in. .?.?. Just showing a different look of where a pitch is located.”

Hembree was a fastball-slider pitcher until last year, when he mixed in a curveball, a pitch he threw when he was younger but scrapped for a time. Sliders are dangerous for righties to throw to lefties, but the curveball in Year???2 could be a boon.

“Last year it was a bit more of a show-me pitch,” Hembree said of the curve. “Everything was hard. My fastball was hard, my slider was hard. It was like I needed something with a little more depth, but a little more change of speed.”

Hembree has a 95-mph fastball to work off. Abad has a 3.09 ERA from 2013-16.

They probably have some leash, but they have to improve.