When you’re reigning world champs, your offseason is a bit different than everyone else’s. You’re trying to preserve or somehow improve upon what you already have so you can do it again next season; they’re scrambling to build teams that can attempt to beat yours.
The Red Sox haven’t had much to do this winter. World Series MVP Steve Pearce practically re-signed on the duck boat, and should’ve-been-co-MVP Nathan Eovaldi took a 4-year deal to stay nasty. Joe Kelly made the somewhat puzzling decision to go to the Los Angeles Dodgers, likely because he’d rather have a fat paycheck than continue playing for the winning side, as did Ian Kinsler, who will be slightly south of him in San Diego. Other than that, not much has been going on in Red Sox Nation other than endless celebrating. And I’m mostly fine with that because I’m incredibly confident in this team. But I do have a few nagging questions that keep poking their heads out of the sand.
Last week, I ruminated on Dustin Pedroia’s uncertain future. This week, let’s talk about the bullpen, specifically….
Who will be the Red Sox closer this season?
The list of available options to bulk up the bullpen is as bare as my family’s pantry during Passover. And the Red Sox just lost out on a great option when Adam Ottavino signed a 3-year deal with the Yankees last week. True, Ottavino isn’t a closer per se, but if Blake Swihart can play every position on the team, anything is possible. And with Ottavino’s work ethic and high level of confidence, he’s not exactly a pitcher I relish our batters facing this season.
But it’s too late now, so better to focus on what the Sox can do than something we can’t change. There are rumors floating around that Craig Kimbrel is willing to take a short-term deal (read: one year) and test the free agency waters again next year. It’s not a terrible idea, given that no team has even come close to matching the 6-year, $100M deal he wanted. You can’t really blame them; Kimbrel was a heart attack personified for most of last season.
Masked by 108 regular season wins and a World Series championship, Kimbrel’s 2018 was worse than people realize. Compare it to his 2017 season, and you’ll see that even though he appeared in fewer games in 2018, his ERA nearly doubled, his walks more than doubled, and his strikeouts decreased dramatically. He only got worse as the season went on; after the All-Star break, his second-half ERA ballooned to a dismal 4.57. During the postseason, he was regularly saved from his own pitching by the heroic defense in the outfield. In 10.2 innings of work over the three playoff series, he posted a 6.74 ERA and gave up 9 hits and 7 runs, including one home run each in the ALDS and the World Series. Memorably, it was Chris Sale, not Kimbrel who pitched the 9th in Game 5 to clinch the championship.
After last season, I was ready to say goodbye to Kimbrel the second the parade ended. But after a few months to think about it, ultimately, I’d give Kimbrel a short-term deal. Even when he’s struggling, he’s still one of the best closers in baseball. Since becoming the Atlanta Braves full-time closer in 2011, he’s had at least 31 saves every season. Last year, his 42 saves were third-most in MLB, he posted an overall 2.74 ERA, and finished the season with 96 strikeouts, tied with teammate Matt Barnes for 9th most among relievers. And let’s not forget that this summer, he reached 300 career saves faster than any other pitcher in the history of the game.
The Phillies and Braves are both interested in Kimbrel, and there are plenty of other teams for whom he’d be a good fit. Kimbrel started and spent most of his career in Atlanta, and it would be a nice story for them to bring him back. But until Manny Machado and Bryce Harper pick their teams, it’s likely we won’t see movement of any kind on any of the remaining free agents.
Dave Dombrowski has stood firm thus far when it comes to opening up the checkbook for a closer, but at the end of the day, the Red Sox should add someone to their bullpen. Joe Kelly is gone. Matt Barnes has his own struggles. Ryan Brasier was incredible for most of the season but struggled at the end of the year. Durbin Feltman isn’t here yet. Craig Kimbrel, when he’s good, is darn good. Give him a short-term deal and help him get his head on straight, and Craig Kimbrel could turn it around in 2019. He’s got to be better than nothing, right?
Photo: NBC Sports