Orioles Red Sox Baseball

Red Sox starting pitcher Josh Winckowski covers his face with his glove after he was removed during a game at Fenway Park.

Yes, the Boston Red Sox have won the World Series four times this century, which is more than any other team has, but now Boston is headed for its fourth last-place finish in the AL East since 2012, and its fifth if you count the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Three weeks ago, we looked at who’s to blame as far as the team’s outfielders go for this unexpected fall from grace, and two weeks ago we looked at the infielders, and today we’ll look at the team’s pitching staff.

Josh Winckowski. Austin Davis. Eduard Bazardo. Tyler Danish. Michael Feliz. Franklin Germain. Zack Kelly. Kaleb Ort. John Schreiber. Matt Strahm. Phillips Valdez.

Not exactly household names, but these guys all pitched for the Red Sox this past season, to varying degrees of success.

The starting pitching for Boston this season can’t really be blamed for the team’s last-place finish, because as usual, Chris Sale was unavailable to the team for the better part of the season, and while the 33-year-old lanky lefty is expected to be back to full strength by next year’s spring training, it remains to be seen how impactful the seven-time All-Star (who hasn’t pitched more than 43 innings in a season since 2019) will be.

Stepping in for Sale this season were a trio of veterans who turned in solid seasons: 31-year-old Michael Wacha, who went 11-1 with a sparkling 3.06 ERA, turning in his best win total since 2017; 42-year-old ageless wonder Rich Hill, who was 8-7 with a 4.41 ERA; and 29-year-old Nick Pivetta, who went 10-11 with a respectable 4.48 ERA and set a career-high in wins. More was expected of free agent-to-be Nate Eovaldi, but he was sidelined by injury several times this season and only started 19 games for Boston, going 5-3 with a 4.05 ERA.

Overall, Boston’s starters had the majors’ 22nd-best ERA at 4.47, but that was only because some of the team’s fill-in and late-season starters weren’t nearly as efficient as the mainstays. Winckowski (14 starts, 5.75 ERA), Crawford (12 starts, 5.47 ERA), Connor Seabold (five starts, 11.29 ERA), and Davis (three starts, 5.47 ERA) were thrust into the rotation because of the injuries to Sale, Eovaldi and Wacha, and the Sox only got 10 wins from them in those 34 combined starts.

But all of the starters’ numbers are skewed, however, because of one glaring aspect of the team’s assortment of pitchers: the downright disastrous bullpen (with the exception of Garrett Whitlock).

That bunch had 65 save opportunities this season and only converted 37 (57 percent), and the bullpen ERA was 4.54, good for 25th in the big leagues and next-to-last in the AL. That’s not going to cut it in a division where every other team is above .500 and three of the four AL East teams are going to the postseason, and the fourth-place team –- the once-putrid Orioles –- were in the wild-card hunt until just recently.

It’s obvious that the club is paying through the nose for its position players and its two top starters (Sale and Eovaldi), but apparently is taking the bargain-basement approach to its bullpen, and that has cost the team dearly this season. Only one member of the relief staff is making more than $700,000 this season, and that is the immortal Matt Strahm ($3M), who went 4-4 this season out of the ’pen and has a lifetime record of 17-28 with an ERA just south of four this season.

What does that all mean? It translates to every member of the Red Sox’ bullpen makes around the MLB league minimum salary of $700,000. No wonder the team has struggled this season, particularly in the bullpen.

It’s also worth noting that the Red Sox’ defense ranks 25th out of 30 teams, according to FanGraphs, and that affects the pitchers as well as the scoreboard.

In a perfect world, Boston in the offseason should target free-agent closer Edwin Díaz, who has been dominant for the Mets with a 1.35 ERA, 31 saves, and 116 strikeouts in 60 innings. However, spending significant money on a closer is not part of GM Chaim Bloom’s standard operating procedure, so improving the bullpen through wheeling and dealing will likely be their strategy. So don’t be surprised if the Sox target bullpen pieces from baseball’s lower-echelon teams like the Pirates, Rangers, and Royals –- organizations that likely can’t afford to keep pending free agents.

But that doesn’t seem like a long-term solution for a team that is in last place and is looking up at teams with elite bullpens that are willing to pay to keep them to remain in contention.

What the Red Sox plan to do is anybody’s guess, but if they remain cheap in terms of those bullpen arms, then back-to-back cellar-dwelling seasons wouldn’t surprise anyone.

Chris Young’s column appears in The Sun Chronicle’s Weekend Edition.