- The Red Sox indicated Monday they may be done making significant transactions this winter, signaling the departure of free agent closer Craig Kimbrel. Can Boston's relief corps stay afloat without the veteran closer?
LAS VEGAS — The winter meetings press conference to mark Nate Eovaldi’s return to Boston may be the last major news the Red Sox make this winter. Coming off a 108-win season and a World Series title, the defending champions seem poised to have a mellow offseason. So far, Dave Dombrowski’s front office has brought back Eovaldi and World Series MVP Steve Pearce, but beyond that, it’s been all quiet on the AL East front.
One notable casualty of that approach: Craig Kimbrel. The All-Star closer looks like he’s fallen out of Boston’s plans, if Dombrowski’s comments during Monday’s press conference carry any weight. “We’ll see about the financial aspect of it,” he told reporters when asked about reuniting with Kimbrel. “Our payroll is significant at this point. So we’ll see what takes place.”
Translation: The 2019 season will probably feature a new closer for the Red Sox for the first time since ’16, Kimbrel’s first in Boston. Whether that end-of-game reliever ends up being an internal option—Dombrowski mentioned setup men Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes as possibilities to close, and that the Sox may go into spring training without a set decision there—or a cheaper, shorter-term signing than Kimbrel, who is reportedly seeking a six-year deal, remains to be seen.
Is that the right call for Dombrowski? On one hand, Kimbrel is coming off a strong campaign: a 2.74 ERA, 42 saves and 96 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings. On the other, it was a slip from his dominant 2017, when he registered a 1.43 ERA and an absurd 126 punchouts in 69 frames. In particular, his control was an issue: His walk rate doubled, shooting from 5.5% to 12.6, and his percentage of first strikes and pitches in the zone both fell as well. Turning 31 next May and looking to cash in as he hits free agency for the first and likely only time as an impact arm, Kimbrel represents a risky bet for the future.
As Dombrowski noted, Kimbrel would also be a sizable expenditure. With Eovaldi back in the fold, Boston now has $175 million in guaranteed money committed next season after spending a league-high $227 million in 2018. On top of that, the team owes significant raises via arbitration to half a dozen players, chief among them Mookie Betts (who made $10.5 million last year and could easily double that), Xander Bogaerts ($7.05 million) and ALCS MVP Jackie Bradley Jr. ($6.1 million). Add it all up, and Dombrowski is looking at a payroll once again well north of $200 million—one that will also crack the luxury tax threshold for a second straight year, resulting in a harsher penalty for Boston.
Don’t mistake this for the Red Sox suddenly having to pinch pennies. The franchise is still absurdly lucrative, and last year’s World Series run will only deepen those coffers. The issue for Dombrowski is the desire not only to avoid paying $300 million for a team next year, but also to keep some powder dry for future deals with members of that crucial young core, including Betts and Bogaerts. “We know there’s a lot of question marks about long-term contract status of part of the members of our club,” he said. “It’s going to be a juggling act over the next several years.”
Trying to figure out that balance probably makes Kimbrel a flaming chainsaw too many in Dombrowski’s death-defying budgetary routine. It also rules Boston out of pursuing any of the bigger name free agents on the market, primarily Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. But the Red Sox were never likely to be a player for either, given how full their outfield is and the presence of Bogaerts and Rafael Devers on the left side of the infield. Even beyond that, though, Dombrowski’s comments made it sound like we shouldn’t expect to see the Red Sox mentioned in many future free-agent rumor roundups.
That may not seem like the soundest strategy given the holes still extant on the roster. Assuming one of Barnes or Brasier gets bumped up to the closer gig, the Red Sox still need to replace Kimbrel’s innings, as well as potentially those of fellow free agent Joe Kelly. “We’re aware of what’s going on with his situation,” Dombrowski said cryptically of the latter. And additional relief help wouldn’t be the worst idea, either, given how little depth there is beyond Barnes and Brasier.
The Red Sox also got very little out of second base and catcher in 2018, but for the former, it sounds as if Dombrowski, based on what he told Boston beatwriters on Monday afternoon, was comfortable with a combination of the players already on the roster—Dustin Pedroia, who missed all of last year with a knee injury; Brock Holt; and Eduardo Nuñez. As for catcher, the Red Sox currently have one too many, and are apparently trying to move one of Christian Vazquez, Sandy Leon or Blake Swihart. “It’s hard to carry all three on the big league club,” Dombrowski told reporters. That would seem to indicate that once one is gone, the team is set.
The one move they did prioritize was Eovaldi. That makes sense, given his upside, improved results in 2018 thanks to his adoption of a cutter, and the lack of rotation depth behind Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez. For Dombrowski, the preference was to invest in a starter than a big reliever. “That really was our priority,” he said of Eovaldi.
The question is whether Eovaldi, Pearce and some other minor additions will be enough. Even with Kimbrel gone, running it back with nearly the entire core of a juggernaut that rolled through the postseason isn’t necessarily a bad idea. And with the AL thoroughly lacking in contenders beyond those squads that made the playoffs last year, it’s not as if Boston has to do much to remain in postseason contention. It helps that the Yankees, too, are budget conscious, with New York GM Brian Cashman telling reporters Monday that the team is essentially out on Harper and unlikely to add any big names due to an already inflated payroll.
Nonetheless, it’s still risky to assume that last year’s group will be good enough to pull the same trick without reinforcements, and also down its best reliever. But with payroll already in the stratosphere and not enough young pieces to move for a cost-controlled impact player, for better or worse, the Boston team you see in these winter meetings may be the same one you get come spring training.