One of the obvious priorities before the offseason even began for Dave Dombrowski and the new(ish) Red Sox front office was to rebuild their bullpen. It would’ve been easy for them to take a bunch of low-key, bounce-back type candidates and throw them at a wall and see what stuck. Not many would’ve criticized that strategy, as we’ve seen it work before. Instead, Dombrowski went for the kill and brought in the biggest of big names in Craig Kimbrel and a (potential) future big name in Carson Smith. Combine that with what’s already in-house, and they’re likely done save for a few major-league minimum free agents and/or minor-league deals with spring training invites. There's another big name out there they should be targeting, though.
Assuming you read the title at the top of the page (and if not, what the hell are you even doing), you know I’m talking about Greg Holland. I’ve never been very good at suspense. At the start of the offseason, the former Royal was one of the more fascinating free agents in my eyes. On the one hand, he has very recently been one of the truly elite relievers in the game for a relatively long period of time. On the other, he very recently underwent Tommy John surgery and he’s going to miss the entire 2016 season. Relievers are a volatile bunch as it is. When you add the risk of them coming off major surgery, it becomes straight up nutty. So, why should the Red Sox try to sign him this winter? Well, for a few reasons.
The biggest reason is the upside he represents. Holland will be in his age-31 season when he’ll (theoretically) be healthy again. While that’s not young, it’s also not old. Analysis! In his six-year career, Holland has tossed 319-2/3 innings. In that time, he’s pitched to a 2.42 ERA (59 ERA-), a 2.23 FIP (56 FIP-), a 2.98 DRA and a 65 cFIP. That’s really good! From 2011-2014, eliminating his first cup of coffee and last season’s injury-riddled underperformance, he was the second best relief pitcher in the game by both rWAR and fWAR, trailing only Kimbrel. Even in that injury-riddled down year that was 2015, he ended the year with a 3.83 ERA (94 ERA-), a 3.27 FIP (82 FIP-), a 4.36 DRA and a 96 cFIP. Obviously that’s not great, but that’s way worse than what we imagined the worst case scenario would be for Holland, and it was still all right. That’s especially true when you consider the fact that his arm really was never right. So, yeah, there’s a ton of upside there.
The question then becomes why sign him now when he’s not going to be ready until 2017. The answer there is two-fold. The first and most obvious reason is simply that, if you want him, you’re not getting him next year. At some point, a team will give in and sign him to a two-year deal, leaving him off-limits until 2018. There’s just too much upside to turn down, and with every team in the league capable of adding another potential great reliever, someone will take a chance sooner or later.
On top of that, by signing him for the 2016 season you get to oversee his rehab. If, hypothetically, he was to remain a free agent through the entire season, his rehab would be handled by his own people. Now, there’s no reason to believe he can’t find people who can lead him through a successful rehab. He almost certainly can. However, every team in the league would feel a lot better if they had a say in his rehab process, have their own people leading it and get updates on his status whenever they wanted.
With Kimbrel and Smith both under control for multiple years, do they really need another great reliever that will cost more than a minimum deal? The answer, of course, is yes. It should be obvious by now that you can never have enough high-upside relievers on your roster. Some are going to fail, so having as many options as possible gives you the best chance at success. Beyond that, the bullpen is going to look a lot different at the start of 2017. Part of the reason adding Kimbrel and Smith was so exciting was that they were being added to an already solid duo of Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa. Both of those guys could be gone after the season, as they’re in the final years of their deals. Uehara could possibly be retiring, and Tazawa may be able to get more money elsewhere. Having the safeguard of having Holland in place could make that transition a lot easier.
So, once they decide he’s worth having on the roster, they need to look at the monetary cost. It’s at this point we need to mention that Holland is represented by Scott Boras, adding a whole new wrench into this situation. With that being said, it still shouldn’t be a very expensive contract. The 2016 salary should be something less than a million dollars, too, so even if the 2017 salary is higher than one would expect, the hit against the luxury tax wouldn’t be too large for that season. Obviously, the flip side of that is the fact that the 2016 luxury tax number would rise disproportionately, but they’re already over the threshold as it is.
The Red Sox don’t need to make another splash in the form of a reliever, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. With Uehara and Tazawa potentially leaving after this season, having an ace in the hole ready for that moment is far from the worst thing in the world. There aren’t going to be many higher-upside plays available at that cost that are better than Holland. Obviously, it’s possible he never quite bounces back from his surgery. For the chance that he does bounce back to his previous levels, however, it’s more than worth a shot for the Red Sox.