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With Chris Sale in Red Sox rotation, bullpen should need to get one less out per game

February 15, 2017

FORT MYERS — One fewer out.

That’s the gift the Red Sox bullpen already has received from new addition Chris Sale, who spoke to reporters for the first time this spring yesterday at JetBlue Park.

It’s not only the acquisition of Tyler Thornburg, the health of Carson Smith and the transition of Joe Kelly that has the relief corps in good shape at the start of spring training. All it takes is simple math to see how Sale will save the relievers from having to record one additional out each game this season.

Sale averaged more than seven innings per start last year. He replaces Clay Buchholz, who averaged less than 52/3 innings. The astronomically large difference calculates to about five outs per start.

Five outs every five days. One out per game.

“My goal every game is to throw a complete game,” Sale said yesterday. “Everything else doesn’t really matter. Strikeouts are cool, you want to keep your walks down, you don’t want to give up a whole lot of runs. But if you’re out there for a complete game, usually things are going right.

“And I was in the bullpen for a couple years. Any time you can give those guys a day off, they work hard, they really do. They’re out there 50, 60, heck, even 70 times. Any time you can give them a break, it’s huge.”

This Sox bullpen performed well a year ago. It was a ’pen that was publicly questioned throughout most of the season but finished tied with the World Series champion Chicago Cubs for the 10th-best ERA in the majors at 3.56.

Relievers who are no longer on the roster accounted for 1821/3 innings with a 3.70 ERA in 2016.

Thornburg is one of the new guys being counted on to pick up the slack. Acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers in a trade for third baseman Travis Shaw and shortstop prospect Mauricio Dubon, Thornburg struck out a remarkable 90 in 67 innings with a 2.15 ERA last season.

Thornburg was the Brewers’ best reliever last year and thus used frequently when manager Craig Counsell believed the opposing team’s best hitters were coming up.

“It was whenever the middle of the order was up,” Thornburg said. “I was facing 3-4-5, 2-3-4 the majority of the outings, so I’m used to facing those kind of hitters.”

Asked what he expects his role to be, Thornburg said he figures he’ll pitch in the seventh or eighth inning. Red Sox manager John Farrell often assigns innings to his relievers rather than batting order positions, so it’s a safe guess to think Thornburg will be the eighth-inning guy, bridging the gap to closer Craig Kimbrel.

The seventh inning is where Smith could settle in nicely when he returns to form. After undergoing Tommy John surgery last year, Smith is scheduled to throw his first bullpen session around March 10-15, Farrell said. That keeps Smith in line for the potential May 1 return date that president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski predicted in the offseason.

Until then, the Sox can get a look at Kelly in the seventh (on nights Sale isn’t pitching the inning). Kelly originally was skeptical about moving to a bullpen role, but after all the success he had after converting from a starting role last season (172/3 relief innings, 21 strikeouts, 1.02 ERA), he finally committed.

“I knew that’s what was best for the team and, as a whole, best for the organization,” said Kelly, who often hits triple digits on the radar gun. “I pitched well there, so I put my focus on that and truly tried to embrace it with how I got ready for camp. I feel good throwing the ball, better than I was last year coming into camp. Started my throwing program a little earlier with a little less volume. That’s played a big role in how I’m feeling. Hopefully healthwise, I’ve been getting that shoulder thing the last few years, so hopefully with the new throwing program and the way we created it this offseason, hopefully that won’t come back up.”

There’s only one fear that the Red Sox have when it comes to their bullpen: health. During the past three years, Kimbrel (knee), Kelly (shoulder), Thornburg (elbow) and Smith (elbow) all have been injured.

But if the rotation comes through as promised this year, the bullpen could have a lighter workload.

One out per game goes a long way.