There was a clear theme at the top of the bullpen ERA leaderboard last season: The most effective bullpens tend to be teams that have workhorses in their starting rotation.

Chris Sale had a widespread impact on the Boston Red Sox pitching staff in his first year with the club. Not only was he a Cy Young Award contender who led the majors with 308 strikeouts, but his 2141/3 innings also ranked first.

With all those innings from their ace, and with Rick Porcello and Drew Pomeranz also finishing in the top 20 in the American League in innings, the rotation threw 9511/3 innings, tied for third-most in the majors.

It wasn’t every night that most of the relievers could put their feet up and watch Seinfeld reruns, but it happened often enough that the well-rested bullpen put together a strong season. Its 3.07 ERA ranked second in the major leagues.

Four of the five best bullpens by ERA last season were in the bottom third in relief innings pitched. The Red Sox haven’t made a single addition to their pitching staff going into 2018, but they still have their horses.



A true No. 1: Finally, someone took over for Jon Lester. Sale wasn’t just an elite hurler who struck out double-digits in 18 of his 32 starts, he also ended three losing streaks (including a four-game skid in July when the Sox were crumbling on the West Coast) and ate up innings when the bullpen was tired. His first playoff start was a mess, but he rebounded with a gutsy performance out of the bullpen on short rest in Game 4 and left a taste of what the Red Sox can look forward to in Year 2.

Sky-high upside: The staff includes two Cy Young winners who weren’t even among the team’s best two starters last year. After Sale and Drew Pomeranz (3.32 ERA in 2017) sit Rick Porcello and David Price. On top of that, there’s the lofty ceiling of Eduardo Rodriguez and former All-Star knuckleballer Steven Wright at Nos. 5 and 6.

Wipeout relief arms: Craig Kimbrel still has the best career ERA (1.80) in baseball history for a pitcher with at least 400 innings, and he struck out almost 50 percent of the batters he faced last year. The last time Carson Smith was healthy (in 2015), he struck out almost a third of the batters he faced; he showed that kind of potential late last season in his return from Tommy John surgery. Joe Kelly had the second-highest average fastball velocity in baseball a year ago, sitting at 99.2 mph, behind only Aroldis Chapman (100.1).


Health: If the pitchers stay healthy, Dave Dombrowski declared last month, this team can compete with any other. Then again, which team wouldn’t say that? The American League hasn’t had a team with five 30-start pitchers since the 2006 White Sox, who won 90 games despite all five starters having ERAs above 4.25. Health and reliability are just that valuable. And the Red Sox have to go into the season with legitimate uncertainty about Price (elbow), Rodriguez (knees) and Wright (knee and shoulder), plus reliever Tyler Thornburg (shoulder).

Depth: There are no electrifying pitchers in Triple-A. Jalen Beeks is one guy the Red Sox keep touting after he posted a 3.86 ERA in Pawtucket last year. A lefty who throws in the low-90s, Beeks is a former 14th-round pick who has never been on any top-100 prospect rankings, nor has he thrown an inning in the majors.



Will Sale’s tweaks pay off? Per the request of the team, Sale has already begun making changes to his preparation in an attempt to stay stronger late into the season. He’s now taking it slow ahead of spring training, trying to dial it back and save his bullets.

Can Price get comfortable? He led the league in innings his first year in Boston, but now that he’s recovering from a tear in his elbow, eating innings may not be the priority. Staying healthy, consistent and composed should be.

Will Rodriguez blossom? Now that his knee should no longer be prone to dislocation, something that’s happened three times since he was traded from the Orioles, the hard-throwing lefty with one of the game’s best changeups should have a chance to show the Red Sox why they were so excited about him.

Can Kimbrel handle the change? New Manager Alex Cora said he would like to deploy his closer in a more versatile role, even if that means calling on him in the eighth inning, should the highest leverage situation present itself. In a contract year, will adjust well in a new role?

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