FORT MYERS, Fla. — This is another great Red Sox team, except they’ve left a bull’s-eye squarely on their back after chairman Tom Werner sounded definitive Monday that Craig Kimbrel — one of the best closers in baseball history — will not return, reinforcing what we all suspected.
The Sox have chosen Kimbrel as the superstar who will not be back with a championship team.
We understand the reasons; believe me, we do. Kimbrel was asking for a five- or six-year deal and wanted to be paid like closers who are his contemporaries. He should have gotten his due, but for some reason, in this diminished free agent market, he may be an elite pitcher who falls through the cracks.
Kimbrel was trying to place himself in this category:
Aroldis Chapman, five years/$86 million.
Kenley Jansen, five years/$80 million.
Wade Davis, three years/$52 million.
Mark Melancon, four years/$62 million.
Does he belong? Of course he does. He’s probably better than any of them. He’s also only 30 years old.
The Red Sox have budgetary concerns, being close to the third threshold where they’d be taxed an exorbitant amount if they re-signed Kimbrel. They clearly prioritized Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce — and, going forward, Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, and Mookie Betts — over Kimbrel.
Is this the right priority?
We all saw Kimbrel melt down in the postseason, and he also showed some nervous tendencies against the Yankees. It’s hard to believe that someone who has accomplished so much would get nervous in big situations, but you could see it at times. He would sweat down his right arm, and the perspiration would fall to his hand, and he would use some rosin so he could grip the ball.
Yet, he did the job when it counted. He got the required outs.
Is he replaceable? Evidently, the Red Sox have determined with their internal analytics and metrics that he is. It may look good on paper, but in reality, doesn’t it leave the Red Sox extremely vulnerable?
Forget the analytics for the moment and let us use common sense. Does losing the premier closer in baseball for the past seven years — as well as a 100-m.p.h. fastball artist in Joe Kelly — make your team better? Maybe the Red Sox do have suitable replacements. Maybe Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier will be lights out at the end of the game and Heath Hembree is dominant in the seventh inning and Steven Wright will use his knuckleball to dazzle hitters out of the bullpen.
Maybe all of that happens.
Maybe they find their new Brasier amid the sea of 6-foot-4-inch righthanders they have in camp. Maybe one of their 40-man-roster kids emerges as a dominant bullpen piece.
It just seems that a lot of things have to go right to replace Kimbrel and Kelly.
Kimbrel isn’t the best closer in the game for no reason. All closers go through career dips, and Kimbrel had his last season — even though most relievers would be very happy with a 5-1 record, 2.74 ERA, 0.995 WHIP, 42 saves in 47 chances, and an opponents’ batting average of .146.
Kimbrel was throwing 97-99 m.p.h. He still had an excellent breaking ball, though at times he got in trouble with it. Late in the season, word was that he was tipping his pitches, though that seems overrated since he throws just two pitches.
Why is Alex Cora so confident he can replace this elite closer?
“We’ve got stuff in the bullpen,” said the manager. “At one point in his career he had no saves and now he’s going to be a Hall of Famer. We’ve got guys who can step up. We’ve got to put them in the best spots possible, and that’s on me.
“We’ll have our plan and we’ll stick to it. If you start looking at numbers on Barnes and Craig, if you do your homework and compare the two — the way we used Barnes and situations, tie game, up one or up two, with the bases loaded, facing 3-4-5 hitters — look at OPS of hitters Matt faced and the OPS of batters Craig faced.”
The OPS against Barnes was .624. Against Kimbrel, it was .565
So yes, the Red Sox are taking a big chance here. They can downplay it all they want, but Kimbrel is a big loss. It is, after all, a bullpen-dominated world in baseball now.
Yes, the Red Sox have starting pitchers who can go deep into games. Rick Porcello is a workhorse. David Price can get you seven or eight. But even though Chris Sale’s shoulder issues were termed “minor” by principal owner John Henry, let’s face it, Sale is not likely to be a seven- or eight-inning guy a lot.
Eovaldi is impressive in his durability, yet we’re talking about a guy who has had two Tommy John surgeries. Eduardo Rodriguez is capable of pitching deep, but he also has an injury history.
So even on an elite staff such as this, there are red flags. That’s where the reliance on the bullpen comes in. The Red Sox were fortunate that they could use Eovaldi, Porcello, Sale, and Price in strategic bullpen roles in the postseason. Had they not, would the bullpen as constituted — even with Kimbrel and Kelly — have been able to ward off the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers?
All last season, we wondered whether the bullpen was strong enough to carry the team through the playoffs. There were slumps along the way.
At one point, Henry asked his manager about the bullpen, and Cora responded that the Red Sox would be just fine. Dave Dombrowski passed on adding bullpen reinforcement at both trading deadlines. And they were right. It worked.
But, again, it may have worked because they were able to insert starting pitchers in key spots. That part was managed brilliantly.
So are the Red Sox trying to extend this good fortune, perhaps beyond reality?
It appears they’re going to see where it takes them. We have to believe that if the current bullpen doesn’t do the job, Dombrowski will strike with an acquisition and budget be damned.
This is a window to repeat, and the last thing you want to do is to leave perhaps the most important aspect of the pitching staff vulnerable. It just doesn’t make sense to live in a mansion and have a 20-inch TV in the living room.
The Red Sox have left themselves with an obvious hole until they can prove that their risk will be rewarded.
“It’s crazy to me,” said Sale when asked about Kimbrel still being on the market. “I don’t want to get too far into it with the politics of baseball and all this stuff, but he’s as good as it gets.
“He 100 percent makes any team better that he plays for. It’s crazy to think that there really hasn’t been a whole lot of traction with him.”