How’s that for making a splash?
Dave Dombrowski didn’t bother waiting for the Winter Meetings, the time typically ripe for player movement, to make his first big move as President of Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox. Having watched the Red Sox for the final two months of the season, Dombrowski identified a lack of power arms, and overall depth, in the Red Sox bullpen. So what did he do? He went out and got the best closer, and one of the hardest throwers, in baseball.
It didn’t come cheap. In fact, Dombrowski indicated the Kimbrel deal would, likely, be the “big” Red Sox trade of the offseason. They did give up four of their top 25 prospects in the deal. All for a pitcher who is expected to pitch roughly 60 innings of 162 games this season.
The question is would the Red Sox have been better off stockpiling their prized prospects for a top of the rotation pitcher, or maybe even a slugging first baseman or corner outfielder. Make no mistake about it, Kimbrel is great. Red Sox fans will love watching the rosy-cheeked Kimbrel on the mound. They will take great comfort late in games when they watch him stare into his catcher, his pitching arm dangling to the side like a bazooka, trying to protect a one-run lead.
It seems a steep price to pay, especially when you consider the Red Sox could have just signed Andrew Miller last offseason and saved their prospects for another deal (Sonny Gray, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber).
Andrew Miller’s stats last year: 60 games, 61 IP, 33 H, 20 BB, 100 K, 36 saves, 2.04 ERA, 0.86 WHIP.
Craig Kimbrel’s stats last year: 61 games, 59.1 IP, 40 H, 22 BB, 87 K, 39 saves, 2.58 ERA, 1.04 WHIP.
The point is the Red Sox may have been better off identifying a reliever who is currently not a closer who could effortlessly step into the role, for a much cheaper price. The Houston Astros did it last year when they signed Luke Gregerson. The 31-year-old Gregerson was a career set-up man, but converted 31 saves for the Astros last season in his first shot as a closer.
A quick look at the saves leaderboard from last season reveals non-household names like Melancon (51 saves), Boxberger (41), Britton (36), Tolleson (35), Ramos (32), and Rondon (30). The Red Sox need only look at their own roster to find a dominant closer who came out of nowhere. Nobody expected Koji Uehara to have one of the most dominant seasons ever by a closer when they signed him in 2013. In fact, he was the fourth pitcher the Red Sox tried in that role that season, after Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey, and Junichi Tazawa.
A good talent evaluator should be able to find a closer cheaply. The shelf life for closers is not long. Not every closer’s career lasts as long as the careers of Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman. And neither of those two were very hard throwers. Rivera relied on a cutter and Hoffman had a devastating change-up.
Taking a quick look back only two years, here are some of the names that ranked in the top twenty in saves in 2013: Jim Johnson (50), Greg Holland (47), Joe Nathan (43), Rafael Soriano (43), Addison Reed (40), Grant Balfour (38), Sergio Romo (38), Fernando Rodney (37), Edward Mujica (37), Ernesto Frieri (36), Jason Grilli (33), Kevin Gregg (33). None of those guys were closing for teams at the end of the 2015 season.
Kimbrel saw his effectiveness dip, ever so slightly, in 2015 at the age of 27. Kimbrel blames the shock of being traded the night before Opening Day as part of the reason for his struggles. But he did give up the most home runs (6) of his career and he has seen his strikeout rates dip slightly. Even still, his rates are elite… but they are declining.
Kimbrel is owed $11.2 million in 2016 and $13.2 million in 2017. There is a team option for 2018 which would pay Kimbrel $13 million.
The Red Sox already have Koji Uehara on the books for $9 million next year. Uehara will now slide into the eighth inning, set-up role. If Uehara can stay healthy — a big “if” at the age of 41 next season — the Red Sox will have one of the best one-two knockout punches in baseball.
Junichi Tazawa becomes the seventh inning guy. Tazawa has worn down over the course of the last couple of seasons and it will be incumbent upon manager John Farrell to keep close tabs on his workload– not, necessarily, one of Farrell’s strengths..
Dombrowski would be wise to add one more piece to the bullpen– either a Darren O’Day or Ryan Madson. Dombrowski will also need to add a lefty to the bullpen. The Red Sox have long coveted Antonio Bastardo, but Tony Sipp is another option.
Once Dombrowski gets the bullpen sorted out, he will need to worry about innings one through six.