The Royals won the World Series on Sunday night, officially ending the 2015 baseball season. Obviously, the season has been over for the Red Sox for quite some time now, but the offseason doesn’t truly begin until all of the teams are no longer playing games. Before you know it, players will be moving around and teams’ plans for 2016 will start to come into focus. As such, it’s time for us to start to identify our favorite potential free agent targets for a Red Sox team that is looking to rebound from their third last-place finish in the last four years. I’ll give you five minutes to guess what area of the roster I’ll be focusing on for my free agent target.
You done yet? Too bad, I don’t have all day. While the rotation is (justifiably) on the mind of most and will almost certainly have more resources poured into it, the bullpen needs a lot of work as well. I won’t go over the whys behind this again — click on my name on the top of this page and you’ll find 450 versions of the same intro — so just take my word for it. The bullpen kinda stinks. Luckily for Dave Dombrowski there are plenty of different options, ranging in prices and roles. Among all of them, however, Darren O’Day stands out as the best potential target for the Red Sox.
This is going to sound crazy, but the biggest reason for O’Day’s fit with the Red Sox is the fact that he’s incredibly talented. Since being claimed off waivers by the Orioles prior to the 2012 season, O’Day has been one of the best relievers in all of baseball. He’s tossed 263 innings in that four-year span (an average of 66 innings per year), putting up a 1.92 ERA, 214 ERA+, 3.08 FIP and a 4.56 K/BB ratio. Among the 226 pitchers in that time who have thrown at least 250 innings (including starters), O’Day ranks 29th in FIP, 17th in K/BB and 2nd in ERA+.
To make things even more encouraging, 2015 was the best year of his career. O’Day watched his strikeout rate climb to levels it never has before, as he set down 32 percent of the batters he faced. Just nine pitchers with at least 60 innings struck out batters more often in 2015. It doesn’t appear to be a fluky gain, either, as his swinging-strike rate climbed to a career-high 33 percent, per Baseball Prospectus. He ranked 26th in whiff rate among the 437 pitches who tossed at least 500 pitches this year, right between Kenley Jansen and Chris Sale. To go along with this hugely improved strikeout rate, he lowered his walk rate all the way down to 5.5 percent. All in all, he ended the year with a 274 ERA+ (2nd in baseball) and a 2.49 FIP (15th in baseball).
So, we’ve established that O’Day is a very good pitcher. The next step is finding if and how he fits with the Red Sox. The question of "if" is a pretty simple one in this case. O’Day is great and Boston needs great arms in their bullpen. The question of how is slightly more complicated, yet still pretty simple. As of now, the Red Sox still have Koji Uehara to slot into the closer role. It’s easy to forget after he missed most of the year, but he’s still one of the better relievers in the game when healthy and would need a bona fide star to be brought in to take him out of that role. That’s not a point in Boston’s favor, as O’Day may want to go to a team that will give him the chance to close. However, Uehara is on the wrong side of 40 and can’t be trusted to stay healthy all year. O’Day has a good chance of closing at some point in 2016, and should have every opportunity to take over the role on a permanent basis in 2017. If that’s something that’s important to him — and it could be since he has a good chance at hitting free agency again before his career is over — the Red Sox can offer him a delayed chance at the ninth inning.
O’Day is very good, and is a good fit for the Red Sox. The unfortunate part of this is the same could be said for just about any other team in the league. In the end, it will come down to who is willing to offer fair market value. How much that will be remains to be seen, but looking at how last year’s free agency went, Boston should be able to afford it. Some potential comparables from last winter’s class include Francisco Rodriguez, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, Andrew Miller, Uehara, Sergio Romo and Zach Duke. Those players had a wide variety of track records, but they all have some parallels with O’Day. Miller got the largest contract of the deal, receiving a four-year $36 million deal from the Yankees, but O’Day’s deal shouldn’t get that high. For as good as O’Day is, Miller was utterly dominant heading into his free agency in a way that few pitchers in baseball can match. Gregerson may be the best match, and he got a three-year contract with $18.5 million. Factoring in a bit of inflation and the fact that this year’s class isn’t as deep as last year’s, something in the three-year range with a $7-$9 million AAV should get it done. That’s something the Red Sox can easily afford, even if it ends up being higher than that.
The Red Sox are sure to bring in multiple relievers to try and rebuild their bullpen heading into the 2016 season, but at least one of them should be a legitimate back-end arm. If they’re going to acquire that kind of guy from free agency, O’Day is the easy choice. He’s been one of the best pitchers in the game over the last four years, and was especially great in 2015. He slots in as a perfect set-up man for next year and is a potential closer moving forward. In short, make it happen Dave.