Over the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at different trade targets for the Red Sox. When you’re following a team that is playing this poorly, trades are really the only thing you can look forward to. I had identified Jonathan Papelbon and Will Smith as possible newcomers. Can you sense a theme?
Clearly, I’m worried about the bullpen moving forward. I will admit that Papelbon looked a lot better a few weeks back when it appeared the Red Sox could compete this year. Smith, meanwhile, fits the profile they should be looking for. Namely, Boston should look for relievers who can help long-term. Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa are the only two reliable bullpen arms at the moment, and even they have their flaws. The former is 40 years old, while the latter throws about 300 innings per season.
Well, if they’re going to address their bullpen, they might as well go all-in and acquire arguably the best reliever since Mariano Rivera. Craig Kimbrel has been a legitimate phenom in this league, locking down the ninth inning in a literal sense for six years.
Seriously, head over to his Baseball-Reference page for a minute. I’ll wait. You back? Those numbers are bananas. You weren’t imagining when you thought you saw a pitcher who had never had an ERA above 2.75, an ERA+ below 130 and a FIP above 2.48. Admittedly, all of those numbers have come this season. However, he was hurt by an uncharacteristic four week stretch from mid-April to mid-May, and he’s been his normal self since then. I wouldn’t expect this be the new normal. This is the first time in his career he’s carried a FIP above 2.00. That is absurd.
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Beyond that, he is under control for two more years after this, which is possibly the best commitment you can get for a reliever of this caliber. He’s not a rental, so you’re not giving up a superstar package for a couple months of a reliever. He’s also not just a one full-season acquisition either. That kind of deal puts a lot of pressure of the following season’s team. Instead, Kimbrel is under contract for 2016 and has a team option for 2017, both of which come in at $13 million. In other words, he’s making just $4 million more than Uehara. Boston would have the opportunity to put one of the best relievers of the last decade on their roster for his age-28 and age-29 seasons on a reasonable contract.
The downside of that last part is, of course, that the cost to acquire him would be high. The Padres just traded for Kimbrel a few months ago, so while they’re shopping him, they likely won’t flip him unless someone makes it worth their while. This makes people nervous. Many are against giving up value for any kind of reliever, and for good reason. Bullpen arms are inherently volatile. However, that only applies to normal relievers. Guys at the very top of the position, the Kimbrels and Aroldis Chapmans of the world, typically age well. Look no further than Papelbon. Everyone has been waiting for his "inevitable" decline for years, but he just keeps performing. Kimbrel would be worth whatever it takes to get him, as long as it doesn’t involve Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Blake Swihart or Yoan Moncada. Trading Manuel Margot or Rafael Devers, or Henry Owens plus more pieces, for a reliever would certainly hurt, but this isn't just any reliever. Teams with depth in the farm system need to dip into that surplus until it runs out and they have nothing to show for it.
Meanwhile, they could turn around and get some of that farm system value back by trading Uehara in a separate deal. For as good as he’s been, the Red Sox wouldn’t need two closer-caliber players in the same bullpen. Uehara could be flipped for prospects or pitching help, and would go a long way towards helping to fill the void left by whatever was given up for Kimbrel. They could then use the offseason (or maybe even another trade or two this week) to rebuild the relief corps around Kimbrel and Tazawa.
The Red Sox desperately need pitching help, and while there is starting pitching available right now, it might make more sense to wait until the offseason. At that point, trading teams will have to compete with free agents, and the asking prices could come down a bit. Instead, Boston should look to address their shoddy bullpen right now when relievers are available all over the place. Specifically, they should target the best reliever the game has seen over the last five years. Kimbrel has been a special player over his career, and would be worth the expensive package it’d take to get him. Boston would also have Uehara at their disposal to make up for some of the talent they’d lose in a potential Kimbrel deal. It’s not every day elite relievers are available, and Kimbrel is as elite as they come. If Ben Cherington is serious about fixing this bullpen, a deal like this would be a hell of a start.