Remember when Dave Dombrowski's weak point was his inability to build a bullpen? That was the concern with him when he joined the Red Sox as their President of Baseball Operations, and the last two seasons of Tigers pens was the cause of this. The lack of aggression on his Tigers' part in attempting to acquire someone who was available and could help, like Jonathan Papelbon, did his reputation no favors, either, even as he acquired players who could help like Joakim Soria.
Dombrowski probably remembers all that. He remembers how the Tigers blew their leads against the Orioles in the 2014 American League Division Series. He likely remembers how the pen did their part to sabotage the 2015 Tigers, which led to selling off David Price and Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline, which in turn led to a last-place finish in the AL Central.
He's also probably thinking about how the bullpen of the team he is now in charge of, the Red Sox, was sunk in 2015 in large part due to a lack of reliable pieces within it -- it's the rotation that took the blame throughout the year, but the bullpen was worse relative to the league average than the starters, and it wasn't close. The Sox pen threw 501 innings in 2015, with a 4.24 ERA, whereas the average pen sat at 3.71: the rotation's discrepancy was 4.39 to 4.10, and that was with disasters like Justin Masterson and Rick Porcello's first half included.
It's to be seen if Boston's bullpen will hold up -- bullpens are one of the more fickle parts of a game that is inherently fickle -- but you can't say Dombrowski isn't trying to set them up for success. The Red Sox aren't taking any chances here, making sure there are plans in place for both now and later. First, there was the acquisition of Craig Kimbrel in exchange for four prospects. It was an expensive deal, but of course it was: he's Craig Kimbrel. That improved the bullpen significantly on its own, as it pushed Koji Uehara to a setup role, which in turn gave Junichi Tazawa some help in building a bridge to the ninth. If Tazawa can avoid being overworked, he's a valuable piece in the pen.
Add that to keeping southpaw Robbie Ross around -- Ross produced a 3.30 ERA over his final 39 games and 43 innings after a disastrous start to the year -- and the Sox had the makings of a fine bullpen. It was still in need of another arm, though, as those four couldn't get it done alone, but Dombrowski has seemingly gone and solved that by trading starting pitcher Wade Miley to the Mariners for Carson Smith and Roenis Elias.
Smith could probably be the team's closer, if not for Kimbrel. He struck out nearly 12 batters per nine in 2015, his first full season in the majors, and posted a 164 ERA+ in the process. He tossed 70 innings, logged 13 saves, and is under team control for another five years. Elias is left-handed and a starter, but his presence allows the Sox to decide between one of him or Joe Kelly in the pen and the other in the rotation, and either should be a welcome sight.
To get to Kimbrel in the ninth, the Red Sox can now turn to Smith, Tazawa, and Uehara in the sixth, seventh, and eighth on a given night. If there are lefties in there somewhere, Ross can get his work in. They have five primary relief arms, and one of Elias or Kelly could make a cost-controlled sixth if there is only the one rotation spot available. That's huge for 2016, especially since the rotation still features some question marks, like Clay Buchholz's health, Rick Porcello's ability to rebound, and what Eduardo Rodriguez's second year in the majors will look like.
Shortening games with a bullpen like this is one way to avoid being hurt by the answers to those questions that the Red Sox don't want to hear. It's how the Royals managed to get through the regular season and postseason the way they did, and the absence of a viable pen was something that many other playoff teams could not hide once they got there.
It's also a way for the Red Sox to solve one of next winter's issues before it comes up. Uehera will be 42 in 2017, and could very well retire after this season. Tazawa will be a free agent, and it's to be seen whether he will re-sign, or if the Red Sox will want him to. Kimbrel is around for the next three seasons thanks to a 2018 option, and now he'll be joined by Smith, who won't even reach arbitration until 2018.
Those two alone don't make a full pen, obviously, but having the two of them around instead of just the one for the next few years means Dombrowski has already answered the question of who is going to anchor the bullpen during the rest of the guaranteed years of David Price's contract. He's also solved this issue without spending significant money on it, and if one of Elias, Kelly, or prospects Henry Owens or Brian Johnson can stick in the rotation in Miley's place, then he's actually brought some money back into the mix for other needs.
The Red Sox are in a position where they don't need to make any more moves, but that only sets them up to take advantage of the market where they can. They had a surplus of starters at a time when the cost of starting pitching is about as high as can be imagined. They dealt one of them for a piece that can help them win now and later, one who can help them in their quest to exorcise recent demons and shorten some ballgames. It's a wonderful place to be in, and, operating without the pressure of needing to make a deal, the Sox made what looks like a real good one.