Taking stock of the reliever market for the Red Sox
The Red Sox essentially closed the door on a return by Craig Kimbrel. So what now?
At a time when the team already has roughly $235 million in commitments (as calculated for luxury tax purposes) for 2019 — not including the roughly $5 million to $10 million for in-season maneuvers (callups and/or trades) — president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski was fairly candid that the Red Sox plan to stay out of the top end of the reliever market.
“We’re not going to be overly aggressive with big expenditures for our relief closer at this point,” said Dombrowski. “Our payroll is pretty high at this point. Without getting specific on [Kimbrel], we’re not looking to make a big expenditure in that area. So read that as you may.”
That approach is driven not just by payroll concerns but also by the market. Both team executives and agents acknowledge that the free-agent class is, in the words of one front office member, “flooded” with potential closers. Kimbrel heads a class that also features Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, Jeurys Familia, Joakim Soria, Adam Ottavino, David Robertson, Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Cody Allen, Joe Kelly, and more.
In contrast to last year, when there was a huge run on middle relievers by the start of the winter meetings, the bullpen market is moving more deliberately this year. That slow pace is partly the product of agents waiting to see whether teams with significant payroll flexibility — the Phillies come to mind — spend heavy on relief additions if they are unable to land the big fish of this year’s free-agent market, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper.
Yet it’s also the case that the deep supply of relievers has put teams in a spot where they can wait to make additions, with the hope of realizing a bargain — as was the case for the Giants last year when they signed lefty Tony Watson to a three-year, $9 million deal. Holland didn’t get a deal until the end of spring training last year.
At the Winter Meetings, the Red Sox are re-engaging with teams to see if there is a trade match for a late-innings option (most likely in exchange for a catcher). Barring that, the team feels little need to rush into free agency given that there’s a good chance that some good pitchers still will be looking for deals later in the offseason.
“There are a lot of relievers out there at this point,” noted Dombrowski.
At a time when the Sox are trying to preserve long-term resources to make runs at re-signing players like Mookie Betts, Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, and others, and when the team has what it considers viable fallback options for the late innings in Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier, the team is more interested in shorter-team deals for relievers than longer-term ones.
“You’re in a position where again there’s so many dollars to go around as you proceed in the long term and we still have other things that we’re looking at for the long term that aren’t concluded,” said Dombrowski. “And there also might be the possibility to not have to do long term [deals] in that [relief] regard.”
There’s risk in such a strategy, but perhaps less risk than the Sox perceived had they not re-signed Eovaldi (a transaction that Dombrowski characterized as an alternative for the Sox to spending heavily on a closer). The success of the 2018 Red Sox bullpen arose in part because of the team’s ability to develop pitchers in late-innings roles; it’s easier to do that with a reliever, who might only need a two-pitch mix, than with a starter.
The Sox are betting that they can build a successful bullpen with a relatively low-stakes wager — a contrast to how the team proceeded over the last three seasons with Kimbrel, to be sure, but an approach that gives the team more leeway to focus its long-term resources on what it sees as positions of greater importance.