The Red Sox can’t afford to go cheap on their bullpen
The Red Sox rotation will make approximately $89 million next season, depending on what Eduardo Rodriguez ends up with.
Their lineup will cost roughly $95 million if Dustin Pedroia returns at second base. That counts Mitch Moreland and Steve Pearce as a $12.75 million platoon at first base.
Yet we have been asked to believe the Sox will invest nearly $200 million on 15 of their primary players then go cheap on the bullpen.
It doesn’t make sense. Why build the nicest house in town and not pay for insurance? We’ve all come to understand the importance of a good bullpen, especially given the trend of managers being careful to protect their starting pitchers from overuse. Failing to build a deep and reliable bullpen is inviting trouble.
It’s also the quickest way to wreck a team’s confidence. Nothing deflates the clubhouse more than losing games in the eighth or ninth inning. The Red Sox were 84-6 when leading after six innings last season, 90-4 leading after seven, and 96-1 leading after eight.
Locking down leads was a huge component of their success. The Sox also were 42-21 in games decided by one or two runs.
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has said he would be comfortable with Matt Barnes or Ryan Brasier replacing Craig Kimbrel as the closer. Barnes has two career saves and Brasier none, so let’s assume Dombrowski is throwing that out there as a negotiating position.
Sometimes closers just appear, as Koji Uehara did in 2013. But it’s hard to count on that happening. With Joe Kelly off to the Dodgers, it’s reasonable to think Brasier can take on a more prominent role in the late innings. But promoting him to closer is asking a lot.
Barnes could be capable of finishing games but more in a scenario where the Red Sox use him when the matchups make sense and not by rote. But Dombrowski has said he wants a traditional closer.
It also would be a mistake to have Barnes and Brasier compete for the job in spring training. Barnes has appeared in 194 games the last three seasons, seventh most among American League pitchers. He should go to spring training to prepare for the season, not going full-tilt to win a job.
The solution is easy. Wait for Kimbrel to lower his price and sign him. Or move forward and sign Zach Britton, Adam Ottavino, or David Robertson to close.
Adding an additional $10 million-12 million to the payroll almost surely would push the Sox past $246 million and incur the heaviest penalties in MLB’s luxury tax system.
The alternative is still being taxed at the second-highest level and having a weaker bullpen.
Building a powerful team with a fatal flaw is foolish. That will leave Dombrowski having to trade prospects to improve the bullpen in June or July. This organization can better afford financial penalties than the loss of prospects.
I am not advocating ignoring the luxury tax. There will come a time it makes sense to reset the payroll and that likely will be after the next season when Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., J.D. Martinez, Moreland, Pearce, Rick Porcello, and Chris Sale can become free agents.
But right now, they’re all still Red Sox. Why waste that?
If history shows the Sox missed a chance to repeat because they didn’t sign an established closer, staying under the highest level of the luxury tax will be the most pyrrhic of victories.
A few other observations on the Red Sox as 2019 approaches:
■ You probably missed the news that Justin Masterson retired. He’s only 33 but had not pitched in the majors since 2015 when he briefly returned to the Sox.
The Red Sox took Masterson in the second round of the 2006 draft out of San Diego State and he went on to throw 1,201 innings in the majors and make 184 starts.
In the 12 drafts since (among players they signed), the Sox have not developed a pitcher with more than 18 major league starts (Brandon Workman) or 320 innings (Alex Wilson).
Notable busts in that period include first-round picks Casey Kelly, Bryan Price, Anthony Ranaudo, Trey Ball, Pat Light, and Henry Owens.
This is not uncommon. Since 2006, only 105 pitchers have started 184 or more games and only 93 have 1,201 or more innings.
It helps to underscore how difficult it is to draft and develop starting pitchers.
■ In a letter that was included in season ticket renewal packages, Alex Cora wrote this to Sox fans: “Everyone talks about the hangover effect after winning a World Series. And while it’s difficult to win a championship, I also know that we have a great core of players who are talented, young and most importantly eager for more.
“In my mind, winning a championship doesn’t lead to a hangover, it makes you addicted to winning.”
No team has repeated since the Yankees from 1998-2000. Cora is approaching the challenge with confidence, telling the players they can win again and not to back away from that.
Convincing everybody that last season was a beginning and not an end is really what it comes down to.
■ Nathan Eovaldi, Porcello, David Price, and Sale had nine appearances as relievers in the postseason. Their line: 13⅔ IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 13 K. The Sox were 7-1 in those games.
■ Equally remarkable, in the other direction, is that Kimbrel appeared in nine postseason games and allowed seven runs on nine hits and eight walks over 10⅔ innings and the Sox were 8-1.
■ Major League Baseball recently struck an agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation to give Cuban players a legal path to the majors that will be free of smugglers and shadowy side deals.
Maybe it’s also a conduit for the Red Sox to finally have some success with Cuban talent.
The Sox have never quite been able to figure out Cuban players over the last decade. Aroldis Chapman had a Fenway Park tryout in 2009, throwing in the bullpen on a rainy day. But the Sox weren’t sold and he signed with the Reds.
Jose Iglesias was signed in 2009, but the shortstop of the future was traded to Detroit in 2013.
The Sox tried to sign Jose Abreu in 2013 but were outbid by the White Sox. They then overcompensated a year later by signing workout warrior Rusney Castillo for $72.5 million a year later. He has not played in the majors since 2016.
The Sox — and other teams, to be fair — wildly overestimated the skills of infielder Yoan Moncada in 2015. He was signed to a $31.5 million bonus and has since hit .234 with a .319 OBP in 211 major league games. But at least he helped the Sox trade for Sale.
■ Mookie Betts had his contract renewed before the 2017 season, refusing to sign for the $950,000 the Sox offered. He then went to an arbitration hearing last year when the sides were $3 million apart. Betts proved his point and won.
Now Betts is in his second year of arbitration with Sox ownership on record saying they want to sign him to a long-term deal.
A good first step would be for the Sox to make Betts an offer for 2019 that he takes. A third consecutive year of disagreeing on his value would not bode well for a long-term deal being made any time soon.
■ The Portland Sea Dogs Hot Stove dinner will be at 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 15 at the Sable Oaks Marriott in South Portland. Keith Foulke will be the featured guest along with Sea Dogs infielder Nick Lovullo. Call (207) 875-9500 for tickets or go to seadogs.com.