FORT MYERS, Fla. — There’s an empty locker in the Red Sox clubhouse at JetBlue Park that would be perfect for Craig Kimbrel. It’s where he was the last three seasons, just down the row from the starting pitchers.
It contained two empty shoeboxes and a T-shirt on Wednesday.
As the Red Sox ran through a rain-shortened first workout for pitchers and catchers, Kimbrel remained a free agent. Other than speculatively, no team has been tied to the righthander since he entered the market.
There are teams known to covet Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, the two most prominent free agents. But for Kimbrel, a 30-year-old seven-time All-Star, it has been a ghost town.
Chris Sale, now a former teammate, can’t understand it.
“It’s crazy to me,” he said. “He’s as good as it gets. He 100 percent makes any team better that he plays for, right? It’s crazy to think that there really hasn’t been a whole lot of traction with him.”
Sale blamed purposely non-competitive teams “just showing up for checks” for the lack of competition for free agents.
“He’s earned it and you’d like to see better for him,” Sale said. “He’s put in the time; he’s put in the effort and he’s put it on the line. It’s time for someone to do that for him.”
There will be at least some chance Kimbrel returns to the Red Sox as long as he remains on the market.
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski wouldn’t comment on any conversations he has had with Kimbrel or his agent, David Meter, other than to say the Sox do not expect to make any “big expenditures” on a closer.
Dombrowski identified Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Tyler Thornburg, and Steven Wright as candidates to close.
Only Thornburg has had that role before, and it was at the end of the 2016 season for the fourth-place Milwaukee Brewers. He has since appeared in only 25 games because of a shoulder injury and pitched poorly.
Thornburg first has to prove he belongs on the roster before he can be considered for the ninth inning. The same is true of Wright, who is recovering from knee surgery.
So while Dombrowski said he believes Kimbrel will one day be elected to the Hall of Fame, the bullpen is where he’s drawing the line on adding to what is already the highest payroll in the majors.
“Of course we’ll still keep an eye on what’s taking place outside the camp. But we think our answers come from within,” Dombrowski said.
Manager Alex Cora said he knows what he wants to do but will discuss it with the players first before making a decision.
“Everybody’s going to be on board,” he said. “We do believe with the talent we have and what we believe as an organization we’re going to be able to get outs late in the game.”
One option simply would be not naming a closer and allowing Cora to use relievers as he sees fit without the constraints of one pitcher being designated only for save situations.
As teams gain more data-based knowledge on how best to deploy relief pitchers, it’s a shift almost sure to happen over time. It would take a confident, analytically inclined manager to embrace the idea and Cora is every bit of that.
But would the Sox be willing to lead the revolution?
Dombrowski is a traditionalist who believes there is something different about pitching the ninth inning. He would prefer the team select a closer but is a little flexible.
“I can’t tell you that doesn’t evolve. But right now we’re looking to have a closer when we leave camp,” Dombrowski said.
Cora seems more open to the idea. He wanted the option of using Kimbrel in non-save situations last year but it never happened, largely because the Sox were playing so well and there was no reason to experiment.
“We used different guys in different [innings] last year until the ninth inning, obviously. We got creative and we did it through the season and obviously in October,” he said.
Cora also understands that the bullpen he breaks camp with won’t necessarily be the one he has on July 1 or Oct. 1 if the Sox return to the postseason.
The team, which used 19 relievers last year, has 17 players on their spring training roster with major league relief experience and four others who were invited to minor league spring training.
So while Sale would welcome Kimbrel’s return, he feels the Sox can succeed without him.
“If he’s not in the mix I think we have a handful of guys who can lock down the ninth inning and we have a lot of young guys who can step up as well,” Sale said.
“Obviously people like to make a big deal about it. But where we sit as players and our staff and our coaches, I think we’re confident with the group we have going forward.”