With the news that Zach Britton will be staying in the Bronx, the list of available free agent relievers has dwindled yet again. Per MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand, the Yankees’ 2018 midseason acquisition has a three-year deal valued at $40 million, with an opt-out and fourth-year player option.
Last month, it looked more than likely that Craig Kimbrel would be gone by the new year. But his braggadocious agents made it clear that the pitcher they were marketing as ‘the best free-agent closer in the history of baseball’ wanted a deal in the 6-year, $100 million ballpark, a ludicrous ask even for a man who’d just reached 300 saves faster than any other pitcher in history and pitched on a championship team. Dave Dombrowski made it as clear as he could without saying, ‘Thank U, Next:’ Boston wasn’t going to bite.
But then Joe Kelly left for Los Angeles, Andrew Miller did not make a semi-triumphant return, David Robertson went to the Phillies, and Zach Britton stayed put. Suddenly, Dombrowski’s Winter Meetings soundbite, ‘we’re not looking to make a big expenditure in that area,’ felt about as empty as the 2000s section of the Yankees’ trophy case. Add to it that Kimbrel’s agents have lowered their ask, and it seems like the video screens at Fenway will once again be covered in Kimbrel’s signature flames next season.
But his re-signing wouldn’t exactly cue fireworks; Craig Kimbrel did not have a good year in 2018. I won’t get into the specifics again (you can relive them here), because I’m still trying to forget all the regular and postseason heart attacks he induced. But to make a long season short: his walks and earned runs skyrocketed, his ERA nearly doubled. Almost nothing improved, and a lot got worse. In the postseason, the outfield bailed him out of bases-loaded situations he created. When it came to 2018 Kimbrel, there was a lot to complain about, little to celebrate.
The case to keep Kimbrel is simply that the Red Sox are fast running out of options, not that they were ample, to begin with. Considering his 2018 performance, that’s not ideal. It’s less ideal that the Red Sox will have to pay him more than they’d like to shell out for a closer, especially with the number of players who they’re going to want to re-sign in the next few years and the hope that they could squeeze in under the highest luxury tax threshold. But I’m not going to say we should let Kimbrel go and rely on Matt Barnes and Durbin Feltman. And Nathan Eovaldi, while magnificent out of the pen, is too valuable and too expensive to just be used one inning per game.
33-year-old Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino is still available, and the only viable semi-alternative (he’s not a closer, per se) with whom I’d be remotely happy. He says he could strike out Babe Ruth, and I almost believe him. Ottavino had a 2.6 WAR and posted a 2.43 ERA over 77.2 innings and struck out a career-high 112 batters in 2018, only allowing five homers and walking 36 batters.
By comparison, Craig Kimbrel’s WAR was 2.3 and he posted a 2.74 ERA in the 2018 regular season, giving up 7 home runs and walking 31 batters. But he only pitched 62.1 innings and appeared in far fewer games than Ottavino. Ottavino also is more comfortable pitching multiple innings; last season, he recorded 4-plus outs in ten different appearances, including three 2-inning stints. Kimbrel was never used for more than four outs in the regular season, and his first-ever attempt at a 6-out appearance came in the ALCS; he loaded the bases in the 9th before Andrew Benintendi saved him from an Alex Bregman walk-off. In the age of starting pitchers averaging less than seven innings per appearance, a relief pitcher who can pitch longer is appealing.
On the other hand, Ottavino isn’t a closer. On the other other hand, neither is Chris Sale, and we all know how his 9th inning appearance in the World Series went. Ottavino’s sinker/slider combo is one of the best in baseball, and definitely would be a welcome weapon in the Boston arsenal. The Yankees are also in pursuit, even after making a deal with Britton. I’d rather have Ottavino on our side than have to face him multiple times per month.
If the Red Sox keep Kimbrel, they’re relying on one of two risky scenarios: that Kimbrel will return to form, or that the defense will continue to bail him out of the jams he creates. They say the devil you know is better than the devil unknown. With Kimbrel, I’m not so sure. But I’m also not sure we have a choice.
*Photo: Getty Images; stats courtesy of Baseball Reference