Ben Cherington says that the Red Sox roster is set heading into spring training, meaning the hot stove season has come to an end for all intents and purposes. That also means we can start to look at the job Cherington has done in assembling the 2015 Red Sox as a whole without having to consider the possibility that there's still another shoe to drop. Last time, we looked at Pablo Sandoval at third base. Now we're onto a situation with quite a few more names in the mix:
Ben Cherington's track record with the bullpen is...strange. His biggest, boldest moves have come up horribly short. He moved Daniel Bard to the rotation and traded for Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon, then traded the latter when his value was artificially low for the biggest train wreck yet in Joel Hanrahan and non-tendered the former after two unsuccessful seasons. Even his biggest bullpen move from last year went poorly, with free agent Edward Mujica failing to deliver.
Instead, it's been the afterthoughts who have delivered. Koji Uehara was quietly signed to a one-year contract (with a vesting option) in December of 2012 as a third, or even fourth option at closer, then proceeded to produce one of the most dominant years of relief pitching baseball has seen. Burke Badenhop, one of the few bright spots in 2014, likewise flew under the radar.
Perhaps, then, we should consider it good news that most of the Red Sox' bullpen additions this offseason have been of the low-profile variety. Excepting, of course, the re-signing of Uehara. Rather than chasing after the bigger free agents, the Sox picked up a few castoffs from other teams in Robbie Ross Jr., Alexi Ogando, and Anthony Varvaro in hopes of finding someone to replace the production of Andrew Miller and Burke Badenhop.
Ultimately we can split this portion of the offseason into two parts for Cherington: Koji, and the rest. Let's start with the former. Given how quickly the Red Sox and Uehara agreed to terms, it seems clear that the club wasn't interested in trying out a new closer. And why should they be? After all, between Koji's last two seasons, he's produced a 1.75 ERA and a ridiculous 181:17 K:BB.
The issue, if indeed there is one, is that they signed a player who will turn 40 on April 3rd to a two-year contract worth $18 million. A player who went through a very concerning slump towards the end of the 2014 season, looking far too much his age for comfort.
If it wasn't for what ultimately amounts to little more than a two-week period at the end of the year, it would be a lot easier to be fully enthusiastic about this signing. And, frankly, the fact that it's a two-week period that's coloring that perception makes me think full enthusiasm is warranted all the same.
The fact remains, though, that even if Uehara had pitched just as well straight through the end of the year, two-year deals for 40-year-old pitchers deserve a raised eyebrow no matter how good the pitcher is. It's hard to say if the Red Sox could have gotten away with a one-year deal without resorting to the qualifying offer since Uehara never actually hit full-on free agency, but it's pretty impossible to be particularly impressed by $18 million to a relief pitcher of Koji's age, even when it's a relief pitcher of Koji's quality.
So if Koji is something of a wash on the whole, that leaves the rest of the moves for Cherington to really sway this one way or the other. Let's start with the least impressive of the bunch: the re-signing of Craig Breslow.
Once upon a time, Breslow seemed like a reliable lefty acquisition in the middle of a lost 2012. But in his time with the Red Sox, he's frankly been...pretty bad. A 3.64 ERA is the middle ground between one season of excellent results and one season of terrible results (unfortunately, the latter is most recent). But what's really concerning is that Breslow's peripherals are all headed in the wrong direction, and even if the Red Sox were really desperate for a lefty, his splits are minimal. Breslow is the sort of pitcher who's all too well aware of the difference between sustainable and unsustainable success, so he'll know that 2014 wasn't simply a fluke disaster. But given that Burke Badenhop went to Cincinnati for just half a million more, it feels like the Red Sox re-signed the wrong reliever here.
The new acquisitions, on the other hand, are rather more encouraging. How you feel about the trade for Robbie Ross Jr. will likely come down to how you feel about Anthony Ranaudo, but Ross at least seems poised to bounce back assuming the Rangers haven't permanently ruined him with a brief trip to the rotation ala Daniel Bard. As someone who thought Ranaudo's upside was limited to a bullpen role to begin with, it's hard to get too upset about the swap.
Less divisive should be the additions of Alexi Ogando and Anthony Varvaro. With Ogando, it's a clear situation of buying low on a player coming off an injury-ruined year. Given that he came at a low-price off free agency after being non-tendered by the Rangers, and would still be under team control for 2016 if he pitches well enough for the Red Sox to want him back, this is a surprisingly high-upside move for how little the team put into it.
Even more impressive is the acquisition of Anthony Varvaro. I mean...find the downside here! The Red Sox traded Aaron Kurcz--not a player in the team's future plans, particularly--for a reliever with a 2.74 ERA and 93:38 K:BB in the last couple years with Atlanta. The biggest knock against Varvaro is that he wasn't pitching in particularly high-pressure situations, which is really just a question of opportunity rather than ability. For all intents and purposes, the Red Sox got a free seventh-inning arm who isn't even arbitration eligible yet. The Braves were in a hurry to clear roster space, and the Red Sox were there to profit.
With all the moving pieces, it's a bit of a mixed bag for Cherington. Still, if bringing Breslow back was puzzling, and the contract to Koji has some red flags involved, the rest of Cherington's work here creeps into that territory of "low-risk, high-reward" which, if it got a bad reputation in the aftermath of the John Smoltz signing, remains the ideal for general managers everywhere.
The result is a grade that's being pulled between an A and a low B. Ultimately, though, the fact that Varvaro and Ogando being around in 2016 could go a long way towards mitigating a potential decline from Koji seems like it should carry the day. This feels like a sneakily good job from Cherington that has left the Red Sox with a surprisingly deep pen. Some of the names involved won't work out, but at the end of the day it would be pretty surprising if the Red Sox didn't have at least four or five good options from this group. And with all the pitching available in the upper minors, missing on a couple guys along the way just isn't all that big a deal.
Final Grade: A-