For Red Sox, re-signing Craig Kimbrel might be their best alternative
If the Red Sox were indeed prepared to move on from Craig Kimbrel and avoid the “big expenditures” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski claimed to be finished with this offseason, David Robertson was a good alternative.
Robertson, entering his age-34 season, was not positioned to land a long-term contract and desired to remain on the East Coast after spending the bulk of his career with the Yankees.
He also was coming off a typically effective season, having appeared in 69 games for the Yankees and holding opponents to a .595 OPS.
That explains why the Philadelphia Phillies signed Robertson to a two-year, $23 million deal on Thursday.
It also could explain why the best alternative for the Red Sox and Kimbrel will ultimately be a reunion.
With Robertson off the free agent market, the Red Sox could consider lefthander Zach Britton or righthander Adam Ottavino as their closer.
Andrew Miller’s two-year, $25 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals and Robertson’s similar agreement with the Phillies have set the parameters for Britton (31) and Ottavino (33).
The Yankees, who obtained Britton from the Baltimore Orioles last season, are working hard on retaining him, according to major league sources.
Ottavino, though a dominant set-up man for the Colorado Rockies, only has occasionally worked as a closer. He would match well with a team prepared to forgo a traditional closer and use relievers where they best fit in the late innings.
Dombrowski has said he prefers to name a closer.
Kelvin Herrera, a pitcher the Sox were interested in at the trade deadline last season, is a free agent but recovering from surgery on his left foot for a torn Lisfranc ligament. His readiness for the start of the season is uncertain.
It was a Lisfranc injury that held up the deal between the Red Sox and J.D. Martinez last February.
There are also a number of second-tier closers on the market. But Kimbrel remains the safest choice if the deal makes sense.
Robertson’s signing also affects Kimbrel as it eliminates the Phillies as a team willing to give him an extravagant contract.
Owner John Middleton said in November his team was prepared to be “a little bit stupid” about adding to its payroll. But it won’t be on another reliever.
Where Kimbrel can turn, other than back to Boston, is uncertain. The Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Angels are possibilities but aren’t teams likely to invest heavily in a closer.
Kimbrel, who turns 31 in May, had a 2.74 earned run average last season, the second highest in his nine major league seasons. He also allowed a career-worst seven home runs and walked 4.5 per nine innings, a 150 percent jump from 2017.
Kimbrel’s nine postseason appearances were even more alarming. He allowed seven earned runs on nine hits and eight walks over 10⅔ innings.
Velocity also was an issue. Kimbrel averaged 97.63 miles-per-hour with his four-seam fastball. While daunting, that represented a drop from 98.72 in 2017.
The Sox believe the command and velocity issues can partially be traced to Kimbrel missing three weeks of spring training when his infant daughter had heart surgery.
Perspective also is important as what amounted to a rocky season for Kimbrel would be a career year for most relievers.
He converted 42 of 47 save chances, made the All-Star team for the seventh time, held opponents to a .146 batting average, and averaged 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
Kimbrel’s return would add the final piece to a roster that returns virtually every important player from a team that won the World Series.
Expect Dombrowski to be patient. Martinez joining the Red Sox made perfect sense at this time a year ago but his agreement did not come until Feb. 19. Dombrowski could wait out Kimbrel in similar fashion.
In November, Kimbrel was reported to be seeking a contract that would meet or exceed the five-year, $86 million deal Aroldis Chapman signed with the Yankees before the 2017 season. It’s clear now those expectations have been altered and could become reasonable enough for the Sox in another few weeks.
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The Red Sox invited 10 non-roster players to spring training: catchers Juan Centeno and Oscar Hernández; outfielder Gorkys Hernández; infielder Tony Renda; and righthanders Zach Putnam, Erasmo Ramírez, Carson Smith, Josh Smith, Domingo Tapia, and Ryan Weber.
All but Tapia have major league experience.