In his latest piece on Gammons Daily, Peter Gammons drops an interesting tidbit on Boston's offseason search for a closer: if the Red Sox hadn't landed Craig Kimbrel, they were prepared to sign Darren O'Day, even making the largest offer he'd receive contingent on their failure to land Kimbrel from the Padres.
No fan in their right mind can really be disappointed with the end result for Boston's bullpen. Kimbrel, Uehara, Smith, and Tazawa form quite the intimidating quartet at the end of games, after all. But misgivings about how the Red Sox got there? That's fair game. After all, if the price on Kimbrel was not completely beyond the realm of reason, it was certainly steep. Depending on who you ask, the Red Sox gave up at least a couple of top-100 prospects in Manuel Margot and Javier Guerra, with some evaluators putting Margot up towards the top-20. Throw in Logan Allen and Carlos Asuaje for good measure, and that's quite the prospect package for a closer.
If the Red Sox had avoided a particularly large free agent contract in the process, that would go a long ways towards explaining the price they paid in talent. Kimbrel is owed quite a bit of money, but it's only over the next two years, with his third season a team option.
But Darren O'Day's contract isn't too bad at all. It comes in at just under $8 million per year for four years. Even if we assume the Red Sox offered $9 million per season--after all, they made the largest offer--they could have had O'Day for four years for the same price as three years from Kimbrel, and held on to both Manuel Margot and Javier Guerra in the process.
Of course, there's more to this than money, and that's what makes the decision to trade for Kimbrel rather than simply sign O'Day less bad than questionable. O'Day has actually been every bit the pitcher Kimbrel has these past four years, providing a 1.92 ERA in 263 innings of work. He's done it in the AL East as well, rather than in the National League. While he hasn't been a closer, notching just 12 saves to Kimbrel's 178 in that time, a reliever of his quality should be able to perform in any inning, and the presence of both Carson Smith and Koji Uehara might have kept him from even needing to play that role. At the end of the day, an excellent fireman available in the sixth-through-eighth innings is probably more valuable anyways.
But the big difference is that Darren O'Day is 33 to Craig Kimbrel's 27. The Red Sox are paying for premium Kimbrel seasons, when there should be little question that he'll be able to be a force in their bullpen for the duration of his contract. O'Day? Who can say? Maybe he'll be one of those guys who pitches until he's 40. He's certainly not the sort who relies on velocity, but his fastball is a legitimate weapon even in the high-80s, and if it loses that quality if/when it loses another tick or two, it could seriously hinder O'Day's ability to lean so heavily on his slider. If that happens in the last year of his contract? Not that big of a deal. If it happens in 2016? Suddenly you're looking at another unfortunate burden on the payroll and an unexpected weakness in the bullpen.
At the end of the day, the bad doesn't outweigh the good on O'Day. I think the Orioles got a nice deal in re-signing him, and in a vacuum would be happy to have him sign the same contract in Boston. And, in a vacuum, I'd probably rather have O'Day on salary alone than Kimbrel on salary and prospects.
But context is important too, and for the Red Sox, the bullpen is a rare area of certainty, with Kimbrel a major part of that. In much the same way that the Sox weren't looking to take a risk with the top spot in their rotation with someone like Johnny Cueto or Jordan Zimmermann, it's not difficult to understand why they would make the younger Kimbrel, with his strong track record in the ninth their first choice, with O'Day the ultimately unnecessary backup.