Heading into the offseason, the Red Sox had two major holes they had to fill. One was atop their rotation, a hole that still exists but will almost certainly be addressed at some point in the coming weeks. The other was in the back of the bullpen, and Dave Dombrowski filled that with arguably the best possible solution. However you feel about what they gave up for him, there’s no denying that Craig Kimbrel makes the current bullpen approximately a million times better. Not only does he improve the ninth inning, but he allows the other holdovers from last year’s unit to step down one level each, improving the sixth, seventh and eighth innings as well. Specifically, it allows Koji Uehara to transform from one of the better closers in baseball to one of the truly elite set-up men in the game. The Red Sox now boast one of the premiere one-two bullpen punches in all of baseball.
Boston’s top two bullpen arms find themselves near the top of every leaderboard for relievers over the last three years. They rank fifth and eighth in K%, eighth and eleventh in FIP- and sixth and seventh in ERA-. Last season represented something close to low points for both Kimbrel and Uehara, and both still finished with FIPs below 2.75. Over the last three seasons, the two have combined for 367 innings with a 1.81 ERA, 508 strikeouts and 95 walks, good for a 5.3 K/BB ratio. If you combined them into one pitcher, they’d be seventh in ERA and eighth in K/BB ratio over that span. In short, these two are very good and having them on the same team is borderline unfair. The real question is whether or not they are the best bullpen duo in baseball.
There’s really no point in listing every team’s one-two duo, because just intuitively you can see that there aren’t many teams that are even in the same conversation. Some teams are completely bare in the back of their bullpen, like the Diamondbacks and Rockies. Other teams have that one great arm, but don't have the second piece to be included in a conversation like this, such as the Reds. It’s extremely rare to find two relievers of this caliber on the same roster, and I was only able to find three other teams with a pair that’s worthy of being in the discussion.
The first and most obvious team to look at is the Royals, the team that made putting together a dominant bullpen en vogue. This would be an easy call if Greg Holland was healthy, as him and Wade Davis were the most fearsome pair in all of baseball, and would easily rank above Kimbrel and Uehara. However, Holland is out for the year and now they are going with Davis and Kelvin Herrera in the eighth and ninth innings. To start off with, Davis is definitely the best reliever in this group, and probably the best in baseball. That’s a pretty big advantage for the Royals here. However, both Kimbrel and Uehara are pretty safely better Herrera, making it more interesting. Herrera has a strong track record, but he’s someone who relies on command and soft contact, and that’s harder to keep going for a long time. Because of that style, I’d say the gap between him and Uehara is larger than the one between Davis and Kimbrel, making the Red Sox’s pair slightly better. I couldn’t fault someone for feeling otherwise, though, and it’s probably essentially a dead heat.
The next is the team that took the Royals’ strategy of pairing dominant relievers and applied a big-market payroll, the Yankees. New York boasts Dellin Betances and old friend Andrew Miller to anchor their relief corps, and honestly this one isn’t really a close competition. One could argue that the Yankees’ arms are both better than Kimbrel, and as a duo they are clearly better than Boston’s pair. One could maybe argue that Miller and Betances lack the track record to rate them so highly, but that’s reaching. The only way they don’t enter the year with the best bullpen duo is if they trade Miller before Opening Day.
Pittsburgh is a team that I never really think about as having one of the most fearsome bullpens in the game, but looking at the numbers, they certainly belong in the conversation. Mark Melancon had some rough points last season, but he still ended up with a 2.23 ERA and a 2.82 FIP. Combine that with two truly elite seasons before that as the Pirates’ closer, and you have arguably the most underrated reliever in baseball. Behind him, they have Tony Watson, who may just challenge Melancon for that underrated tag. Over the last three years he has a 51 ERA- and a 75 FIP-. I would still say Kimbrel is slightly better than Melancon, and Uehara is slightly better than Watson, but it’s very close. They are just a small notch below the top three duos in the game.
So, there seems to me that there’s a clear choice for number one, and it’s not Kimbrel and Uehara. There’s no team in baseball that can compete with Miller and Betances, barring any trades. Boston’s duo and Kansas City’s pair are extremely close, and their relative rankings depend on how you feel about Herrera. In the end, my top four is as follows.
What would it take for a Jose Fernandez trade?
Jose Fernandez could be on the trade market, but whether or not the steep cost it would take to acquire one of the most mesmerizing young pitchers in recent years is worth it is questionable.
1. Miller/Betances (NYY)
2a. Kimbrel/Uehara (BOS)
2b. Davs/Herrera (KC)
4. Melancon/Watson (PIT)
Does it really matter if Boston’s back-end pair is the best in baseball or merely third? Of course not. But it’s a fun exercise and it’s puts having Kimbrel and Uehara on the same roster into perspective. For what it’s worth, there are plenty of teams that could jump into this discussion next year, including Toronto with Roberto Osuna and Aaron Sanchez, the Marlins with A.J. Ramos and Carter Capps and the Dodgers with Kenley Jansen and either Pedro Baez or Yimi Garcia. However, based on talent and track record, the Red Sox did something very few teams around the league have been able to do. Opponents are going to have one hell of a time if they find themselves trailing after seven innings this year.