Craig Kimbrel rejected his qualifying offer Monday, making him a free agent. Without Kimbrel, the Red Sox have no obvious candidate to fill in as the closer. However, they have a couple of in-house options and there are several viable free agent candidates who would cost much less than bringing Craig Kimbrel back. These are the reasons the Red Sox should explore those other options.
Craig Kimbrel was always going to command a big contract for a relief pitcher. With news the other day that his agent, Scott Boras, claims Kimbrel to be the greatest closer ever, one can expect they are aiming for a big-time payday. What would that entail? My guess is Kimbrel will receive a five-year contract somewhere in the 90-100 million dollar range.
With Kimbrel turning 31 next spring, a 5-year contract could be a bit risky. His velocity might decline over the next couple of years, hurting his effectiveness. As things stand now, his effectiveness already waxes and wanes. For how good Kimbrel is, his control tends to disappear at times, at which point fans are in for a rocky rollercoaster ride in the ninth inning. Do you really want Kimbrel taking up 18-20 million of payroll each year for the next five years? That money would be better spent elsewhere. In addition, with the qualifying offer rejected, the Red Sox would pick up a draft pick if Kimbrel signed elsewhere.
This isn’t meant to criticize Kimbrel, he has been one of the better closers of all-time. He has a career ERA under 2.00 and 333 saves. Just two years ago he had another historic season, nearly striking out half of all batters he faced. However, when looking at his other two seasons in Boston, Kimbrel has been good, but nothing special. In 2016 and 2018 Kimbrel has a 3.04 ERA and walks nearly five batters per nine innings pitched. He’s still a strikeout machine and typically gets the job done, but it raises some questions.
More Important Contracts
Mookie Betts jumps to mind as a player the Red Sox need to extend. As the probable 2018 American League MVP and already a three-time Gold Glove winner, Betts is going to command a very large contract. The Red Sox will need plenty of available space to make an extension with Betts work. It might not happen this year, but with only two arbitration years left before he hits free agency, the Red Sox can’t be sleeping on this.
Chris Sale is another obvious guy as he enters his final year before free agency. Sale has been everything the Sox could have hoped for when they traded for him, going 29-12 with a 2.56 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 13.2 K/9 over his two seasons with the team. Sale is probably a top-five pitcher in all of baseball, it would be hard to lose that. With free agency looming, the Sox should be locking him up long-term this offseason.
Xander Bogaerts is also entering his final season before free agency. A two-time Silver Slugger coming off his best season to date, Bogaerts isn’t going to be cheap to retain either. Bogaerts hit 23 home runs, drove in 103 runners and posted a career-best .883 OPS this season. At a premium position, Bogaerts is an important player and won’t be a cheap one. Can the Sox retain him, Betts and Bogaerts even if they don’t keep Kimbrel?
The Red Sox shouldn’t be doling out massive contracts to guys who pitch 50 innings a year when they have MVPs and Silver Sluggers and potential Cy Young Award winners to lock up.
Free Agent Options
The Red Sox might be able to sign two late-inning options for the price of just Kimbrel, with considerably fewer years of payroll tied up in them. That is the direction they should go in, sign two, maybe even three guys to one or two-year deals to lock down the end of the bullpen. If they keep Joe Kelly, they’d likely be looking at signing two.
Robertson has had a nice career but has always done better in a setup role than as a closer. He had a sub-2.00 ERA his final three years with the Yankees before signing with the White Sox to be their closer. He did a good job but had an ERA above 3.00 all three seasons as their closer. At 34 years old come next season, he isn’t someone the Sox would want to give more than a two-year deal.
Andrew Miller is coming off a down season, so it might make some sense for the Sox to pounce. He too will be turning 34 next spring, so he won’t command a long-term deal. Coming off a down season, there is a chance he will be looking to sign a one year deal to reestablish some value. In his down season, Miller still struck out nearly 12 batters per nine innings. In his four previous seasons, Miller was 22-11 with a 1.72 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, and 14.5 K/9. Those are some insane numbers, ones I would love to give him a chance to rebound to.
Ottavino has less mileage on his arm than the other guys, but he’s actually about to turn 33. He has missed time with arm injuries more than once, but when healthy he is good. Pitching in Colorado, Ottavino had a 2.43 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 13 K/9 this past season.
Allen might be looking for a one year deal after having his worst season as a pro this past year. At just 29 years old, he shouldn’t be nearing the end of his effectiveness, and he might be a bounce-back candidate. In the five years before this past season, Allen had an ERA under 3.00 each season, coming to a 2.59 ERA for that five year period. He has saved 147 games over the past five seasons and strikes out 11.5 batters per nine innings for his career.
These are just some of the many options the Red Sox could explore to help form their bullpen. Joakim Soria, Greg Holland, Jeurys Familia, and Zach Britton are several more options that could be had for a fraction of the cost of Craig Kimbrel. Soria and Holland could probably be had on one-year deals. The Red Sox should be looking to sign a couple of the above players to vie for the closer role.
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