Here are 10 options for the Red Sox as possible closers in 2019
It’s official: The Red Sox are looking for a closer.
As expected, Craig Kimbrel declined the team’s one-year, $17.9 million qualifying offer and will test the market.
That doesn’t preclude a return to Boston, but the Red Sox now must decide who should anchor their bullpen, as president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski already has stated that he wants to have a clearly identified pitcher for that role.
The pursuit is not as simple as finding the best pitcher on the free agent market. Cost (years and dollars) is obviously a consideration. But so is the Red Sox’ longer-term payroll structure — they are trying to keep chunks of money available for long-term deals with core players — as is their belief that they have internal options in both the short term (Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier) and the longer term (Durbin Feltman and perhaps Darwinzon Hernandez).
The Red Sox also could pursue options via trade — though the cost for closers tends to be high in the offseason, and relatively modest for rentals at the trade deadline — or look to find a starter who could slot into the back end of the bullpen.
There are no fewer than 10 players on the market with the sort of late-innings experience to merit consideration:
■ Craig Kimbrel, 30, RHP
2018 (Red Sox): 2.74 ERA, 13.9 K/9, 4.5 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9, 42 saves
Kimbrel has one of the greatest relief résumés in major league history, yet it’s fair to question whether that track record is predictive of who he will be going forward.
Since his trade from Atlanta to San Diego just prior to the 2015 season, he has been very good rather than otherworldly in three of four seasons. And in 2018, he saw his strikeout rate drop significantly, his walk rate spike, and his fly ball and home run rates likewise soar.
It shouldn’t be overlooked that Kimbrel’s ability to prepare for last season was affected tremendously by the medical ordeal of his newborn daughter, and that with a normal winter schedule he could rebound.
Still, 2018 suggested that Kimbrel could be vulnerable to fly balls and homers as his velocity ticks down. He may be better-suited to a bigger park when he’s not striking out half the batters he faces.
■ Andrew Miller, 33, LHP
2018 (Indians): 4.24 ERA, 11.9 K/9, 4.2 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9, 2 saves
Miller was as dominant as any reliever in the game from 2014-17, posting a 1.72 ERA with 14.5 strikeouts and 2.3 walks per nine innings while accelerating the evolution of the modern bullpen with his willingness to work at any stage of the game.
But in 2018, as he continued to navigate injuries with his right knee, his fastball velocity dropped (93.8 m.p.h., his lowest since he was in the Red Sox rotation in 2011) and the ability to pour strikes that characterized his rise took a steep hit.
There will be plenty of interest in Miller, given that he’s not far removed from years of dominance, and he has the added benefit of demonstrated success in Boston. But if his knee is a long-term issue, he is no longer the force he was in past years.
■ Adam Ottavino, 32, RHP
2018 (Rockies): 2.43 ERA, 13.0 K/9, 4.2 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9, 6 saves
Ottavino represents a fascinating test for what the market values. He has limited experience as a closer, never recording more than seven saves in a season. Yet among this year’s class of free agent relievers, no one had a more dominant 2018 season.
The Northeastern alum added a nasty cutter to his fastball/slider combination, which helped his entire arsenal to play up, resulting in more chases outside the strike zone and less contact on pitches in the strike zone.
Yet Ottavino has struggled with health issues and inconsistency over his career. Still, the ability to strike out batters and keep them from barreling the ball in the air will make him coveted this winter.
■ Jeurys Familia, 29, RHP
2018 (Mets, Athletics): 3.13 ERA, 10.4 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9, 18 saves
The Red Sox saw Familia as a great fit in July, a pitcher who throws strikes, gets swings and misses, and keeps the ball on the ground. He’s been a workhorse in three of the last four years, reaching 70 innings and appearances in 2014, ’15, ’16, and ’18.
That said, there’s evidence to suggest that he might be well-served to be managed a bit more carefully, as he had an 8.03 ERA when pitching on the second of back-to-back days in 2018, up from a 2.11 mark when getting at least one day of rest.
Still, if a team is looking for a less expensive (yet still expensive) alternative to Kimbrel who is in his prime and has a strong history of work in the ninth inning, Familia could be the guy.
■ Joakim Soria, 34, RHP
2018 (White Sox, Brewers): 3.12 ERA, 11.1 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9, 16 saves
Soria had a terrific year for the White Sox, but after the Brewers acquired him prior to the trade deadline, he became a lower-leverage complementary piece. His relatively low ground-ball rate suggests that, in the wrong parks, he could be more vulnerable to homers than he showed in 2018.
Given his age, he’s unlikely to get more than two years, so a team searching for an established closer on a shorter-term deal could consider him intriguing.
■ David Robertson, 33, RHP
2018 (Yankees): 3.23 ERA, 11.8 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9, 5 saves
Robertson had a fantastic year working in the middle innings, holding opponents to a .183/.258/.337 line. And though he allowed six homers to lefties, three were as much a product of the park (two at Yankee Stadium, one at Camden Yards) as the pitches.
He has proven adaptable, adding a slider to his curveball and cutter to create deception against both righties and lefties.
■ Zach Britton, 30, LHP
2018 (Orioles, Yankees): 3.10 ERA, 7.5 K/9, 4.6 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9, 7 saves
Britton took time to round into form following his midseason return from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. Still, there were plenty of promising glimpses from a pitcher who was little short of amazing from 2014-16 (1.38 ERA), when his sinker/slider combination produced historically high ground-ball rates that allowed him to excel even in the small parks of the AL East.
Britton once again elicited grounders in rare fashion last year, and over the last three months of the season he had a 2.25 ERA and held hitters to a .186/.285/.257 line.
In some ways, he represents the fascinating middle ground of market options — a pitcher with the pedigree and stuff of a dominant closer, but without the recent track record, and that will prevent him from getting top-of-the-market money.
■ Greg Holland, 32, RHP
2018 (Cardinals, Nationals): 4.66 ERA, 9.1 K/9, 6.2 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9, 3 saves
Holland twisted in last winter’s free agent winds until signing with the Cardinals in the opening days of the season. Like many free agents who don’t sign until after spring training, he struggled badly, performing so poorly with the Cardinals (7.92 ERA, an equal number of strikeouts and walks) that he was released Aug. 1 after no one traded for him at the deadline.
But after signing with the Nationals, he posted an 0.84 ERA with strong strikeout and diminished walk rates. Despite declining ground-ball rates, he has a long track record of keeping the ball in the park, save for a 2017 season in Colorado.
■ Kelvin Herrera, 28, RHP
2018 (Royals, Nationals): 2.44 ERA, 7.7 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 17 saves
The Red Sox thought they might land Herrera at the trade deadline, but the Nationals did not opt for a July selloff. Instead, the righthander — a postseason standout for Kansas City in 2014-15 — remained in Washington and suffered a season-ending tear of the Lisfranc ligament in his foot in late August.
Even before the injury, Herrera had performed poorly in Washington, allowing nine runs and four homers in 18⅔ innings, and his strikeout rate was a career low. So there are questions related not just to his health but also his stuff, despite solid overall numbers last year.
■ Cody Allen, 29, RHP
2018 (Indians): 4.70 ERA, 10.7 K/9, 4.4 BB/9, 1.5 HR/9, 27 saves
Allen combined with Miller to give Cleveland a formidable back end of the bullpen in 2016 and 2017, but his trend lines are ominous. He has given up more and more homers each of the last three years, his walk rate was up significantly in 2018, his strikeout rate was well below career norms, and lefties — whom he dominated in 2017 — had an .800 OPS against him.
His average four-seam velocity also went down for the fourth straight year.
There’s a buy-low opportunity, likely on a shorter-term deal, as he still showed the ability to get swings and misses with his fastball and especially his curveball. But given his career path, he’d represent a risk rather than a certainty.
Allen and Kimbrel were the only two pitchers on this list to spend virtually all of 2018 in the traditional closer’s role.
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In sum: Would the Red Sox be happy to have Kimbrel back? Sure. The fact that they made him a qualifying offer suggests as much. But in a free agent class that is deep in options, they have plenty of potential directions to turn while trying to strike the right balance of resources for 2019 and beyond.
Evan Drellich of NBC Sports Boston surveyed general managers about the fluctuating state of the closer role.
Free agent Joe Kelly said on “The Jim Rome Show” (in remarks captured by Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com) that he can’t imagine pitching for a team other than the Red Sox, to the point where he sometimes forgets that he’s a free agent.