The defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox have done little to nothing to improve themselves this offseason. Sure, they’ve re-signed right-hander Nathan Eovaldi and utility man Steve Pearce, but their roster’s most significant flaw — their bullpen — has worsened. And the Red Sox must act quickly before it’s too late.
Last season the Red Sox biggest weakness was their bullpen. While it wasn’t a catastrophe, the pen put games in harm’s way too often in the regular season and struggled to not give manager Alex Cora headaches in October. Even perennial All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel had his ups and downs in the regular season and was shaky in the postseason, finishing with a 5.91 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in October. The veteran closer is also at the forefront of the team’s dormant spending spree.
Kimbrel is among many premier free agents still on the open market and was, undoubtedly, the best reliever available when the offseason began. Now three months in, Kimbrel has an uncertain future. Once seeking a six-year deal, it’s difficult to get a gauge on the hard-throwing right-hander’s market. Could the Red Sox be waiting for Kimbrel’s price tag to fall, in hopes of him re-signing on a smaller deal given that they have the highest payroll in Major League Baseball ($220 million)? Perhaps, but as Kimbrel’s free agency drags on, many relievers have inked deals with other teams.
With Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, David Robertson, Kelvin Herrera, Adam Ottavino, Cody Allen, Jeurys Familia, Shawn Kelley, Brad Brach, Joakim Soria, Greg Holland, and Justin Wilson all signing contracts with MLB teams, Kimbrel remains one of few potent relievers on the open market. Meanwhile, right-hander Joe Kelly, who spent the last four and a half seasons with the Red Sox, agreed to a three-year, $25 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yes, he struggled in the regular season, recording a 4.39 ERA and 1.36 WHIP, but Kelly was lights-out in the postseason and has been one of the best setup men in the sport over the last few years.
If the regular season started today, the Red Sox would have one of the worst bullpens in the sport. While Ryan Brasier had an impressive bounce back 2018 campaign and Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman have been steady forces in recent memory, you can’t pinpoint an Opening Day closer or group of relievers who make the Red Sox pen capable of holding down the fort for an entire season. That’s a problem.
President Dave Dombrowski still has the chance to beef up the Red Sox pen. With the likes of Tony Sipp, Adam Warren, Xavier Cedeno, Brad Boxberger, and Tyler Clippard available, there are plenty of relievers to whom they could extend offers. At the same time, it’s February and the Red Sox have been linked to few to none of those names, not to mention the ones who signed before them. Signing Jenrry Mejia, who hasn’t pitched since 2015 after being suspending for performance-enhancing drugs three times, doesn’t address that aspect of their roster.
Yes, they have one of the best starting rotations in the sport with Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Eovaldi, and Eduardo Rodriguez present. But most AL contenders have some sort of reliability in both facets of their pitching staff.
While it’s not formidable, the New York Yankees have a reliable starting rotation and have constructed arguably the best bullpen in MLB this offseason by re-signing Britton and adding Ottavino. The Tampa Bay Rays have a deep pitching staff of top-of-the-rotation starters — which includes free agent signee Charlie Morton — flex pitchers, and reliable backend relievers. The Cleveland Indians have an unstable bullpen but an even better starting rotation than the Red Sox. The Houston Astros have lost some significant figures to their starting rotation, but it’s still a competent corp, and their bullpen is a lockdown bunch. The Oakland Athletics also have one of the best bullpens in the sport.
The argument that the Red Sox don’t have to operate with a sense of urgency when it concerns upgrading their pen is that it didn’t cost them the World Series and the rest of their roster offsets the weakness. With Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Andrew Benintendi. Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and Mitch Moreland, among others, in the lineup, Cora has one of the most lethal offenses in MLB. At the same time, there were multiple times in the postseason where their pen nearly blew the game in the late innings and only one Red Sox starter pitched through the seventh inning in the team’s 14 postseason games (Eovaldi in Game 3 of their American League Division Series matchup with the Yankees).
Baseball is becoming a game that is increasingly reliant on bullpens, no matter how great a team’s starting rotation may be. This trend is most notably on display in the postseason, and without at least a competent bullpen that can consistently close out games, you’re toast. Based on the pen they have in place, the Red Sox need their starting pitchers to go seven or eight innings a start.
The Red Sox can boast for decades about their 108-win regular season which was followed by them defeating the archival Yankees, knocking out the defending champion Astros, and beating the Dodgers to win their fourth World Series of the century. From here on out, though, Boston’s window for success is narrow, specifically due to their competition within the AL East. Right now, the Yankees have arguably the most well-rounded roster in the sport, and the Rays are one of the youngest teams in MLB. Meanwhile, Sale, Porcello, and Bogaerts are free agents after 2019, while Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. are free the ensuing offseason.
Dombrowski and company can’t keep everybody intact long-term, but, for now, their core remains present. Have the Red Sox lost some individuals to their 2018 World Series roster? Of course, but it’s nothing they can’t overcome. To not be all in on winning the World Series again next season, or the year that follows, would be an immense mistake. Plus, if they wait around and don’t make any void-filling signings, the Red Sox will have to turn to the trade market for help — which management would rather avoid given how they’re going to be relying more on their farm system down the road.
The Red Sox are a World Series contender in 2019, but if they continue to stand by and wait for Kimbrel’s market to disintegrate, or simply don’t address their bullpen, they won’t repeat as AL pennant champions.