With just over three weeks before Opening Day, Craig Kimbrel remains a free agent, and the Red Sox, whom he helped win the World Series last fall, don’t have a bona fide closer. For as sensible as a reunion might seem, it’s unlikely to happen, as the Red Sox appear more willing to experiment with late-inning roles among relatively untested pitchers than to invest heavily in a dominant pitcher who nonetheless showed signs of decline last year, or to increase their considerable tax bill. It’s a set of choices that’s very 2019, to say the least, though the bullpen will need a breakout performance or two for their plan to succeed.
Kimbrel, who turns 31 on May 28, is coming off a season in which he saved 42 games, his highest total since 2014, and made his seventh All-Star team. But he struggled after the All-Star break (4.57 ERA and 3.58 FIP in 21.2 innings), and finished with the highest FIP (3.13) and home run rate (1.01 per nine) of his career and the second-highest ERA (2.74) and walk rate (12.6%). While his knuckle-curve remained unhittable (20.9% swinging strike rate, with batters “hitting” .082/.176/.098 on 68 PA ending with the pitch), the average velocity of his four-seam fastball slipped to 97.5 mph, his lowest mark since 2011, and the pitch was hit comparatively hard (.171/.292/.388) while accounting for all seven of the homers he yielded. In the postseason, he surrendered runs in his first four appearances before discovering that he was tipping his pitches; he corrected the problem by setting up with his glove at his waist, and was scored upon in just one of his final five October outings.
Fixed though he may be, Kimbrel has produced just one season out of the past four (2017, when he posted a 1.43 ERA and 1.42 FIP) that’s in the ballpark of his 2011-14 stretch, when he was the game’s top reliever (1.51 ERA, 1.52 FIP, 11.1 WAR). He entered the winter reportedly seeking a six-year deal worth over $100 million, a price tag that might have been a pipe dream even without his relatively shaky platform season given the frosty turn of the free agent market.
Not helping matters is that three of the majors’ highest-spending teams are already rather spent in the closer market, namely the Yankees (who signed Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million deal in December 2016), Dodgers (who re-signed Kenley Jansen to a five-year, $80 million deal in January 2017), and Giants (who signed Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62 million deal in December 2016). According to Forbes’ end-of-year figures, those teams are respectively ranked sixth, fourth, and third in payroll, with the two teams ahead of them, the Nationals and Red Sox, the only ones who actually exceeded the $197 million Competitive Balance Tax Threshold. More on both of those teams momentarily.
While a recent rumor that Kimbrel was willing to sit out the season if no team met his price was quickly debunked, he remains unsigned, and interest from teams like the Phillies and Braves has hinged on short-term deals. The latter, the team that drafted and developed Kimbrel, hasn’t done anything substantial to fix a bullpen that was below average last year, beyond hoping that midseason acquisition Darren O’Day, acquired as a poison pill in the Kevin Gausman trade, has recovered from season-ending right hamstring surgery. The unit’s current projection of 2.6 WAR ranks 16th out of 30 teams. The Phillies’ bullpen, which most notably added free agent David Robertson as well as former Mariners Juan Nicasio and James Pazos, are projected for 4.2 WAR.
The Nationals, who according to Cot’s Contracts are projected to be $10.5 million below this year’s $206 million CBT threshold, have maintained interest in Kimbrel, and given their recent bullpen debacles and their current reliance on oft-injured Sean Doolittle and Tommy John surgery returnee Trevor Rosenthal, they appear to have need for the fireballer. They would likely need to make a salary-cutting move or two to give themselves some breathing room under the tax threshold, particularly given that as three-time offenders, they will pay a 50% marginal tax rate on the overages.
And then there’s the Red Sox, who according to Cots are already [puts on special payroll-viewing goggles] nearly $31.6 million over the threshold, facing not only a 30% marginal tax rate as second-time offenders but also a 12% surtax for being between $20 million and $40 million over. Re-signing Kimbrel to even a one-year, $9 million deal would not only push them out of that range and into one that, if I’m reading this correctly, boosts their surtax to 42.5%; it would also mean that they would also have their top pick in the upcoming June amateur draft moved back 10 places. All of which seems rather draconian. MLB Trade Rumors, which uses slightly different payroll figures via Roster Resource, estimated that to pay Kimbrel a one-year, $17.5 million salary (thus exceeding Wade Davis‘ $17.33 million to set an AAV record for relievers) would cost an additional $11.564 million in taxes. Woof.
So that’s not happening, and while we wait for some other team to meet Kimbrel’s price — my money is still on Atlanta — Boston’s bullpen is worth a closer look. Last year, with Kimbrel in tow, the unit ranked a modest sixth in the AL in WAR (4.9), but third in FIP- (92), fourth in ERA- (83), and fifth in K-BB% (15.3%). In losing Kimbrel and the often erratic Joe Kelly, who after leading the team with 65.2 relief innings signed a free agent deal with the Dodgers, the team has shed a pair that accounted for 21.8% of their bullpen’s innings and 44.9% of their WAR (1.5 for Kimbrel, 0.7 for Kelly).
Nobody new of any note has come into the fold besides Jenrry Mejia, who signed a minor league deal in January after being reinstated from a PED-related, lifetime ban that cost him the past 3 1/2 seasons. Via our depth charts, the primary pool of relievers appears to consist of lefties Brian Johnson and Bobby Poyner, and righties Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Heath Hembree, Tyler Thornburg, Hector Velazquez, Marcus Walden, and Brandon Workman, with knuckleballer Steven Wright coming along slowly after arthroscopic surgery on his left knee [update: and also suspended for 80 games due to a PED violation] and Carson Smith not available until sometime in midseason as he works his way back from last June’s shoulder surgery.
None of those pitchers besides Mejia, who saved 28 games in 2014 but did not even get a non-roster invitation to Boston’s big league camp, has much major league closing experience. Thornburg owns 13 career saves, all from 2016 with the Brewers, before he was traded (for Travis Shaw) and missed all of 2017 and half of ’18 due to surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome. Barnes owns two saves, Waldman and Wright one apiece, and that’s it, though some of the aforementioned pitchers did close in the minors. This apparently does not faze the Red Sox, who may not anoint a single pitcher for ninth-inning duties. From the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier:
As the Red Sox contemplate how they’ll handle ninth-inning responsibilities in a post-Kimbrel world, the team seems increasingly open to the possibility of taking a flexible approach to the later stages of the game rather than making an unwavering commitment to one person for the last three outs.
Manager Alex Cora reiterated on Sunday morning that he has “a pretty good idea of what I want to do” with the ninth inning, but that the topic is one that is currently subject to organizational debate — a conversation driven less by how individual pitchers perform in spring training than by what the organization is willing to do with them. He opened the door to the possibility of using matchups to dictate the back end of the bullpen structure.
“We know who [the relievers] are. We know the stuff. It’s just about the plan. The plan will be out there on March 28th,” Cora said, referring to the Opening Day date against the Mariners. “It’s just a matter of, see what we’re going to do as an organization, what plan we’re going to do, how comfortable are we with a closer or mixing it up, or getting people out in certain situations? We still have a lot of days to see how we feel about it.”
Those well-versed in Red Sox history may recall the team’s ill-fated 2003 “closer by committee” plan, which fared poorly and ultimately led to the late May acquisition of Byung-Hyun Kim from the Diamondbacks. As Speier points out, current pitching coach Dana LeVangie was that team’s bullpen coach. But those were different times, and the past few years have seen teams show more open-mindedness about late-inning reliever usage, with roles — including who finishes the ninth — less rigidly defined. Ninth-inning-wise, think the 2016-18 Indians, with Andrew Miller (or, when Miller was hurt in 2018, Brad Hand) occasionally taking save chances instead of Cody Allen; or last year’s Cubs, with Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, and Jesse Chavez all used to cover for the second-half absence of Brandon Morrow; or last year’s Brewers, who had three pitchers (Corey Knebel, Jeremy Jeffress, and Josh Hader) save at least 10 games without manager Craig Counsell relying upon any one of them as his main guy.
There’s no reason why the Red Sox, an organization as analytically inclined as those teams, couldn’t get away with a similar approach, given a manager who’s comfortable with such an arrangement and talented pitchers who can boil the job down to “go in and get outs,” as Hader described his role last year. Cora, who as a rookie manager piloted the Red Sox to a franchise-record 108 wins and a World Series victory over the Dodgers, appears quite qualified and game for the challenge. Barnes and Brasier, the two pitchers most likely to figure into a late-game plan, both sound receptive and upbeat via Speier’s reporting. We’re a far cry from 2015, when Angels closer Huston Street declared that he’d rather retire than be used in high-leverage situations outside of the ninth.
Of course, the success of such a plan isn’t just dependent upon player buy-in but also execution, and it’s there that the Red Sox may have more to worry about. With the personnel on hand, the team’s bullpen projects to rank 23rd in the majors in WAR. Here’s how the key individuals that I mentioned stack up with regards to 2018 performance and 2019 projections:
Red Sox Bullpen, 2018-19
2018 statistics are for relief usage only. * = projection based upon usage as a starter.
Much depends upon the continued success of Barnes and Brasier, however they’re deployed. Barnes, a 2011 first-round pick who has spent virtually all of the past four seasons in Boston’s bullpen, more or less ditched his slider in favor of further emphasizing his curve, which generated a career-best 18.0% swing-and-miss rate (up from 12.5% to 13.5% from 2015-17); his 36.2% K rate ranked ninth among the 151 relievers with at least 50 innings last year, while his 2.71 FIP ranked 22nd.
Brasier didn’t join the Red Sox bullpen until July 9 last year, his first major league appearance since September 27, 2013, with the Angels, for whom he made seven appearances that season. In the interim, he lost a year and a half to Tommy John surgery, spent a year and a half in the A’s chain and then a season in Japan, and finally spent half a season closing in Pawtucket, where he pitched his way to the Triple-A All-Star Game on the back of a 1.34 ERA and a 40/8 K/BB ratio in 40.1 innings before getting called up and carrying over a similarly effective performance to the majors. Both pitchers came up big in October, which should lessen fears about whether they can handle the pressure of the ninth inning during the regular season, even if the usage pattern is less regular than your average ninth-inning guy.
It’s the rest of the cast that carries the bigger question marks; most of them project to be more or less replacement level, and they’ll need a few somebodies to step up — perhaps Thornburg rediscovering his pre-surgical form, Hembree avoiding the gopher balls (1.5 per nine over the past two seasons), Smith giving the team a midseason shot in the arm, and so on. Maybe Mejia shakes off the rust and pitches his way to an unlikely comeback. Maybe rookies like Poyner and Travis Lakins (10th on the team’s prospect list) break through. Perhaps president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski can augment this core with an inexpensive signing or a judicious trade, if not in March then by midseason. There’s little doubt that the Sox, even without Kimbrel, have the talent and firepower to repeat as division winners. But particularly if they hope to do so as champions, somewhere within this group, they’re going to have to get a little lucky.