Every year in the postseason, there is some overarching theme that encapsulates the teams that succeed and are applied to every other team in the league. “How can Team X copy this very good team?” is basically the concept. The reality is usually much simpler: Get good baseball players. Still, it’s a fun idea and we usually can’t help ourselves. I am no exception.
This year’s theme seems to clearly be strong bullpens, as relievers and the way they’re used have been a constant talking point since day one of the postseason when Zach Britton sat in the bullpen all night. The usage is an interesting discussion, though employing the ideal strategy in the regular season is likely easier said than done. With that being said, it’s easier to do with what I’ll call the Two-Headed Monster bullpen. The teams that go deep into the postseason are more and more likely to have two great, closer-caliber relievers at the back of their bullpen, making it easier to utilize one or the other earlier in the games. Cleveland has Andrew Miller and Cody Allen; Chicago has Aroldis Chapman and Hector Rondon. We saw it in recent years with the Royals, too. So, in classic, egotistical fan-centric fashion, how can the Red Sox put one of these duos together?
The good news is, they are already halfway there. I realize Craig Kimbrel isn’t the most beloved player on Boston’s roster, both due to his heart attack-inducing style of pitching and the cost of acquiring him. Still, he’s an incredible reliever who just had an outstanding season. Even with the 5.1 walks per nine innings (which surely needs to improve), he posted a 2.88 FIP with an 82 DRA- and an 83 cFIP. Assuming he can bring the walks back down to normal levels, there is still an elite reliever here, and the start of a Two-Headed Monster. Finding the second half is more difficult.
The most convenient way to figure out the second half of a potential dynamic duo would be looking in-house, and there are some options. The most ideal candidate is Carson Smith, but that’s an almost impossible option. Smith didn’t undergo Tommy John surgery until the end of May, meaning he’ll likely miss at least a few months of the 2016 season. Even if you’d expect him to come back immediately in his previous form (unlikely), you’d still be missing him for half the year.
Beyond Smith, there are a couple of impending free agents who could potentially fit the bill. The first is Koji Uehara, who I’d imagine the Red Sox will look to re-sign if he wants to continue pitching. Quietly, Uehara has been at this level as recently as this past season, with home runs just holding him back slightly. Unfortunately, his age makes him a much bigger risk than one would like for this type of duo as it makes him a bigger injury risk as well as giving him a smaller margin for error. Brad Ziegler is a similar option, as he turned into a much better strikeout pitcher after coming to Boston. It’s far from a guarantee those gains would stay, though.
Finally, there is everybody’s favorite in-house option: Joe Kelly. Although I think the need to declare him as a star reliever is premature, I also believe he has that potential. With that being said, counting on that as early as next April seems like too much, as the sample size of him being this effective reliever is still quite small. There are some intriguing in-house options, but they don’t really have the pizzazz of some of the other duos around the league.
For what the in-house options lack in stardom, free agency more than makes up for it. The cream of the crop is clearly Kenley Jansen, who could be a dream pickup for the Red Sox this winter. He’s going to cost a ton of money in addition to a first round pick, but he’s worth it. In this writer’s opinion, only Miller has an argument for being a better reliever. Plus, with a big contract already in hand, he may be convinced to give up some save chances to be used earlier in games. I don’t necessarily see it happening, but if they go cheap at DH, maybe they’ll spend there money here.
If they want to go slightly cheaper but still go after track record, Mark Melancon is also a free agent. He’ll certainly be less expensive than Jansen, and also won’t cost a draft pick after being traded at the deadline. Obviously, his prior experience in Boston is forgetful to say the least, but he’s been one of the best relievers in the game since leaving. Plus, his groundball-oriented approach could make him perfect for a fireman type role.
Finally, there is Aroldis Chapman. Nah, just kidding. Please don’t do that, Red Sox.
The real final free agent option is Greg Holland, who is a massive dark horse. After missing all of the 2016 season, there is no guarantee he could be relied upon in such a role. The difference between him and Kelly, however, is that Holland has done it consistently before. I’ve been a proponent of signing him in the past, and still am, though not necessarily for this type of role.
This is a very difficult section to predict, as we have no idea who will be available via trade. The reliever market has proven to be robust in the recent past, so rebuilding teams may look to take further advantage of what looks to be a growing sentiment around the importance of bullpens. With that said, there are three names I think should become available. The first is Arodys Vizcaino. Atlanta just re-signed Jim Johnson in the back of their ‘pen, and have young fireballer Mauricio Cabrera. That could make Vizcaino expendable. Although he’s a bit rough around the edges, he’s flashed huge potential and is young enough to expect more improvement.
Staying in the N.L. East, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear A.J. Ramos’ names in trade rumors this year. Like Vizcaino, he had some control issues in 2016 but has flashed big-time potential. He’s held down Miami’s closer role for much of the last two years and has quietly been among the game’s better relievers over the last two years. As he starts to get more expensive through arbitration, and with the Marlins having Kyle Barraclough ready to step in, it might be time for them to cash in his value.
Finally, there is Sean Doolittle. On the one hand, he’s on a team-friendly contract that a team like the A’s likely want to keep. On the other hand, it’s hard to predict what Oakland will do in any given year, and if they decide to go full rebuild keeping relievers makes little sense. If he does become available, he not only would provide Boston with a proven late-inning arm, but also a big-time left-handed option of the bullpen that they’ve been lacking for so long.
The Red Sox don’t have a ton of holes to fix this winter, but adding another elite arm in the bullpen could go a long way towards allowing them to take the next step. Going with in-house option would be ideal, but there aren’t any clear choices. My ideal scenario would be going big after Jansen or even Melancon if losing a pick is a nonstarter. The trade options also intrigue me, and I’m sure there will be more names to come up in rumors, but I also expect the cost to be exorbitant. You don’t need to copy the best teams to get to the promised land, but sometimes they have some good ideas to steal. Pairing up elite relievers in the back of the bullpen seems like one idea Boston should swipe.