Former Red Sox closer Matt Barnes, who was traded to the Marlins prior to the 2023 season and wound up undergoing season-ending hip surgery in May, threw for big league scouts last week and could land a deal with a team before spring training for most teams commences next week, Alex Speier of the Boston Globe reports. Barnes is still building arm strength but was in the low 90s with his fastball.
An All-Star with the Red Sox in 2021, Barnes has experienced a sharp decline in recent years, at least in part to a hip issue that’s plagued him for some time. The right-hander saved 24 games for the ’21 Sox but had all two dozen in the books by August 4. At that point, Barnes was sporting a pristine 2.25 ERA with a dominant 42% strikeout rate against a strong 6.8% walk rate. He’d pitched like one of the best relievers in baseball, and Boston rewarded him over the summer in the form of a two-year, $18.75MM contract extension that kept him from reaching free agency at season’s end.
Barnes pitched well for the first month of that contract, but things went south quickly thereafter. Over his final 15 appearances, the right-hander was shelled for a 10.13 ERA with significantly worsened strikeout and walk rates (26.7% and 15%). Barnes had walked only 11 hitters and surrendered just four homers through his first 44 innings but doubled that home run total and issued nine more walks in those final 10 1/3 innings.
It was a miserable way to close out the season, but Barnes’ track record was strong enough that a rebound didn’t seem far-fetched. Even with that calamitous finish to the season, his overall numbers from 2017-21 were sound: 3.82 ERA, 38 saves, 76 holds, 34.8% strikeout rate, 11.1% walk rate.
To Barnes’ credit, he rebounded from that finish to at least some extent in 2022, pitching to a 4.31 ERA in 39 2/3 innings. However, his 19.3% strikeout rate was less than half what it had been during his overpowering four-month run in 2021, and his 11.9% walk rate was still a clear red flag. He wound up missing more than two months of that ’22 season due to shoulder inflammation, and over the winter, the Red Sox designated Barnes for assignment and flipped him to the Marlins in exchange for another bounceback bullpen candidate: lefty Richard Bleier.
The trade didn’t work out well for either party. Barnes pitched just 21 1/3 innings of 5.48 ERA ball with Miami, sitting at a career-worst 93.6 mph with his average fastball. His 20.2% strikeout rate was only marginally better than his ugly mark the year prior, and while he cut his walk rate to 10.1%, that was still well north of the league average. Barnes underwent femoral acetabular impingement surgery on his left hip in late July, and the Fish bought out a club option on the right-hander at season’s end.
Barnes spoke with Speier in a full column for the Globe, speaking about the frustration of not being able to live up to his own expectations for himself over the past couple years. “Looking back on it, I’m realizing now that the hip was such a limiting factor in my ability to get into my lower half, subconsciously knowing that it was there,” Barnes told Speier. “The nature of the injury with the hip, it didn’t allow me to get over my front side and truly rotate and create power.”
Time will tell whether Barnes can ever recapture the form he showed from Opening Day through early August in 2021, though with a shoulder injury and notable hip surgery separating present-day Barnes from that peak version, it feels like something of a long shot. But even if Barnes never gets back to fanning more than 40% of his opponents, there’s a middle ground where he can be an effective late-inning reliever. Just about every club in baseball is looking for low-cost, low-risk ways to beef up their bullpens this time of season. Barnes’ track record should hold appeal in that regard, though the ultimate price tag will come down to how he looks in bullpen sessions. Most clubs will likely want to bring him to camp on a non-roster deal, but a 40-man spot doesn’t seem out of the question if he looks promising enough in a workout for clubs.