Ten days from now Boston Red Sox pitchers and catchers will report to JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Florida, to begin spring training. Position players will arrive five days later, and, five days after that, the defending World Series champions will begin Grapefruit League play. Spring training is fast approaching.
The Red Sox have had a relatively quiet offseason, all things considered. They re-signed World Series MVP Steve Pearce (one year, $6.25 million) and postseason hero Nathan Eovaldi (four years, $68 million), and that's about it. Joe Kelly left as a free agent to sign with the Dodgers and Craig Kimbrel remains unsigned. Boston's brass has consistently downplayed the possibility of re-signing Kimbrel this offseason. From MassLive.com's Chris Cotillo:
"Sometimes, you have to evaluate where you're going to spend your dollars," (president of baseball operations Dave) Dombrowski said. "We decided to keep back the rest of the core of the club. We like our team a great deal and we think some of the guys internally can do the job. Can we get better? Perhaps. But we'll see what takes place."
"Everyone wants proven, but sometimes unproven can do the job, too," Dombrowski said. "They just need the opportunity. I have been in that situation and it has worked well, at times. Sometimes they don't work well. It just depends how they perform and the circumstances."
According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Red Sox's projected 2019 luxury tax payroll is currently $237.6 million. That is well over the $206 million luxury tax threshold and the $226 million second threshold, and a little short of the $246 million third threshold. As a repeat offender, Boston's luxury tax penalties for 2019 break down like so:
- Payroll between $206 million and $226 million: 30 percent tax on every dollar over $206 million
- Payroll between $226 million and $246 million: $6 million plus 42 percent tax on every dollar over $226 million
- Payroll over $246 million: $14.4 million plus 75 percent tax on every dollar over $246 million, plus top 2020 draft pick moves back 10 spots
Every dollar the Red Sox add to their payroll right now costs them $1.42 when factoring in the luxury tax. Once they get to $246 million, every dollar becomes $1.75 million. It adds up quickly., but his contract should be worth more at least $10 million per season. That would push the BoSox into the final luxury tax tier.
The Red Sox have several important players due to become free agents next offseason (Xander Bogaerts, Rick Porcello, Chris Sale) and the offseason after (Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr.), so there are two ways to look at this. One, Boston should re-sign Kimbrel and do all they can to win while this core is intact. Or two, they should pass on Kimbrel because they'll need the payroll space to sign other players in the near future.
Dombrowski & Co. seem to have picked the latter this offseason. They're steering clear of not just Kimbrel, but all major bullpen expenditures. Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, Adam Ottavino and David Robertson all could've capably replaced Kimbrel in the ninth inning but instead signed elsewhere. Even second tier free agents such as Cody Allen, Brad Brach, Joakim Soria and Justin Wilson wound up with other teams.
With Kelly gone and Kimbrel unsigned, Boston's bullpen looks like this with less than two weeks to go until spring training:
- Closer/setup: RHP Matt Barnes, RHP Ryan Brasier
- Middle: RHP Heath Hembree, RHP Tyler Thornburg, RHP Brandon Workman
- Long: LHP Brian Johnson, RHP Hector Velazquez, RHP Steven Wright (rehabbing from knee surgery)
- Depth: RHP Colten Brewer, RHP Durbin Feltman, RHP Travis Lakins, LHP Bobby Poyner, RHP Marcus Walden
In recent days the Red Sox signed reliever lottery tickets Brian Ellington, Jenrry Mejia and Dan Runzler to minor-league deals to add bullpen depth. and those three combined to throw zero MLB pitches last season. Every team signs relievers to minor-league contracts each offseason. Given Boston's bullpen situation, these recent signings seem a little ... desperate? They kind of look desperate.
Anyway, on paper, that hardly looks like the bullpen of a World Series contender. Relievers can come out of nowhere to have great seasons -- Brasier did it just last year, for example -- but counting on two or three relievers to have unexpectedly strong seasons is no way to build a championship-caliber bullpen. Boston's bullpen currently ranks 22nd among the 30 teams according to FanGraphs' 2019 projections. What if Barnes or Brasier gets hurt? Oy vey.
Keep in mind the bullpen was a bit of an issue for the Red Sox last season, when they had Kelly and Kimbrel. Their relief crew ranked ninth in ERA (3.72) and ninth in WAR (4.9). They got through the postseason because Kelly was unexpectedly great and because manager Alex Cora used his starters as setup men. Cora used a starter in relief in seven of the team's 14 postseason games. That works in October. Starters as setup men doesn't fly during the 162-game grind that is the regular season.
Ryan Madson, Sergio Romo, Adam Warren or Alex Wilson and stay under the $246 million tier. They're not Kimbrel, but they are viable big-league relievers, and the BoSox clearly could use another reliever or two.. The Red Sox have approximately $8.4 million to spend under the $246 million luxury tax tier, and, given that Brach signed for $3 million, one wonders whether Boston can snag two of
Potential bullpen trade targets could include Orioles righty Mychal Givens and lefty Richard Bleier, Tigers righty Shane Greene, and Padres righty Kirby Yates. The Red Sox are short on high-end prospects -- they didn't have a single prospect on Baseball America's top 100 prospects list for 2019 -- and those guys shouldn't require giving up top prospects. There are relievers out there to be had. The question is whether the Red Sox can make it work financially at this point, given their luxury tax situation.
The Red Sox won 108 games and the World Series last year, so perhaps worrying about the bullpen -- historically the most unpredictable part of a baseball team -- is a waste of time considering the rest of the title-winning roster is intact. Last year is last year though, and this year is a new season. The 2018 Red Sox were great. The 2019 Red Sox figure to be really good as well, but the 2019 bullpen looks to be a much larger weakness than the 2018 bullpen ever did.