FORT MYERS, Fla. — Manager Alex Cora looked to be having some fun, casually rocking a T-shirt and shorts while observing his team’s early morning bullpen sessions earlier this week.

No closer, no problem.

With Craig Kimbrel almost certainly not returning to the Red Sox, who have already soared past $200 million in payroll and would like to avoid the highest tier of luxury tax penalties after crossing that line in 2018, Cora gets to play an abbreviated role of general manager, a job he’s done in the past for his hometown team in Caguas, Puerto Rico.

With no closer and just one proven set-up guy to go with a few handfuls of pitchers with various experiences and abilities, Cora must spend a big chunk of his spring training studying candidates for the Red Sox bullpen.

Chances are, there will be some surprises.

“I’ve been saying all along, we’ve got some stuff,” Cora said after the non-official workout. “Today I saw a few guys, interesting guys, that we do feel their stuff is going to play at the (big-league) level. We have the whole spring training to figure that out. As far as talent, I do feel there’s a lot of good stuff there. Good fastballs, good breaking balls.”


This is a very Patriots-like approach to selecting a group of relievers. Few have name recognition and none of them are on multi-year deals, but Cora thinks he’ll be able to utilize whatever talent they do have in specific situations.

The highest-paid reliever currently in the Boston bullpen is Tyler Thornburg, who is only guaranteed his $1.75 million salary if he can prove healthy enough for the Sox to lock in his contract before Opening Day on March 28. Other than Thornburg, four relievers can make more than $1 million this year: Matt Barnes ($1.6 million), Heath Hembree ($1.3 million), Brandon Workman ($1.1 million) and knuckleballer Steven Wright ($1.375 million).

Others competing for a spot in the bullpen come from various levels of major league experience and would make little more than the major league minimum – Ryan Brasier, Hector Velazquez, Brian Johnson, Bobby Poyner, Carson Smith, Marcus Walden, Jenrry Mejia and Colten Brewer, among others.

And then there’s another group of arms trying to impress from Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket the way Poyner and Walden were able to make that jump last year.

Don’t count out pitchers in the low levels of the minors, either. This isn’t exactly an open tryout, but it doesn’t seem far from it.

“The way we attack hitters, we’re going to mold these guys and maximize their abilities,” Cora said. “It should be a fun spring training as far as that. Obviously spring training is a little bit different. You don’t have guys pitching the ninth and eighth. They come in earlier. But finding guys that might fit the program, and we feel they can maximize potential, we feel very good about it.”


The second-year skipper has proven he knows how to mold guys to “fit the program.” Brasier and Poyner were pitchers one might consider “passion projects” in 2018, and both went on to have success in the big league bullpen. Hembree is one the Sox think can take a big step forward this year, and Cora has mentioned Brewer, a recent acquisition from the Padres, as another with untapped potential.

Last year, the Boston’s six most-used relievers not named Kimbrel entered the season with an ERA of 3.93 over their careers.

In 2018, those same six relievers posted a collective ERA of 3.58.

So whether it’s Barnes, Brasier or somebody else who ends up winning the closer’s job, Cora isn’t losing sleep over it.

“I think for me it’s too early to answer that one,” he said. “I have to talk to the players first before I answer that. But we got some capable guys that can get outs in the seventh, eighth, ninth inning.”

Barnes could be the favorite. His hit rate fell to a career-low of 6.9 per nine innings while his strikeout rate jumped to a career-high mark of 14 per nine under Cora last year.

“What Barnes did last year was amazing,” Cora said. “If you start looking where he pitched during the regular season and during the playoffs, getting the three-four-fifth guy from the seventh inning on, he was amazing. Brasier did an outstanding job.

“But for me it’s too soon. I’m going to sit down with them and talk to them. I don’t want anybody to come here and try to win a job the first day of spring training. I’ll talk to them and we’ll figure it out and talk about it.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.