As we continue to wait for the first domino to fall for the Red Sox this offseason — and really, for the league as a whole — the anticipation only continues to ramp up. It’s no secret what the priority will be for Boston this offseason, as they are clearly a team that needs a little punch in their lineup. Adding some power, and just some offense in general, is clearly at the top of the team’s to-do list this winter. If there were only one position they could upgrade, it would likely be first base, though they’ve also been connected to players who could handle outfield and designated hitter duties as well. Either way, it’s clear that offense is the priority. With that being said, don’t be surprised to see some speculation around the Red Sox and bullpen arms available on the market.
Honestly, every team every year has some speculation regarding bullpen help, as it’s almost impossible that a team can’t be helped by some free agent reliever. Granted, not every team will make the plunge, but there’s always room. It’s just the nature of the position that is filled with volatile arms. Teams use so many relievers over the course of a year that it’s nearly impossible to have too much depth. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Red Sox pick up one or more bullpen arms this winter, but what kind of relievers and how aggressive they are is a big question at this point. They could go in a number of different directions based on how they feel about their internal options.
Obviously, the team is set at closer with Craig Kimbrel. The righty proved once again in 2017 that he is one of the truly elite relievers not only in today’s game, but in recent memory. He’s on a Hall of Fame track, is in his prime, and the only question about Boston’s ninth inning situation is whether or not they’ll consider discussing an extension to keep him around on a long-term basis. Beyond him is where the questions begin. With Addison Reed leaving via free agency and the eighth inning role being something of a revolving door last year, there are some who believe the Red Sox need to target this kind of late-inning arm this offseason. Whether or not you believe it likely depends on one big question.
That is, how do you feel about Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg? When healthy, both of these righties have proven to be near-elite (or, in the case of Smith at least, safely elite) relievers. If they can get back to their old selves, they are clearly viable eighth inning options. In fact, if they are both back at full strength next year, the Red Sox would have one of the more feared three-headed monsters in all of baseball in the back of their bullpen. Of course, there’s no guarantee they will be at full strength. Smith looked quite impressive in his short time back at the end of 2017, but we have no idea if that will carry over into a full season.
Thornburg, meanwhile, has never pitched for the Red Sox, and while he should be back by spring training we don’t know what level he’ll be at or if he’ll make it through camp without setbacks. With such a long-term injury, it’s hard to bet on consistent health until it’s actually shown. On top of that, even if he is healthy we don’t know how he will adjust to life in the American League East. He was phenomenal with Milwaukee in 2016, but that was two years ago against inferior National League lineups.
Even beyond those two, the Red Sox have a couple of solid backup plans in Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly. In their current form (meaning what we saw from them in 2016), they are not pitchers who a playoff team would ideally have as their second-best reliever. However, it’s not all that difficult seeing either one take a step forward. Kelly has shown plenty of flashes of greatness since converting to the bullpen on a full-time basis. If he can start to miss bats on a more consistent basis with his 100 mph fastball, he can very well be a late-inning arm. Barnes, meanwhile, has struggled in high-leverage spots, but if he can get past that while also improving his command just a bit, he has the stuff to be a really intriguing arm.
The Red Sox won’t go after someone like Wade Davis or Greg Holland, but if they aren’t comfortable with the talented but question-mark-laden options mentioned above, they could seek pitchers in the next tier this winter. That would mean making a run at players like Brandon Morrow, Seung-hwan Oh, Brandon Kintzler, Reed, Bud Norris and Juan Nicasio, among others. They could also target slightly less players like Joe Smith or Yusmiero Petit, but those would just be other mid-tier arms with chances to take high-leverage spots. If they wanted someone who they could immediately place in the eighth inning, it would be from that first group, and it would cost them a decent chunk of change.
Personally, I am of the opinion that they could just get a mid-tiered left-handed reliever (right now I’m in on Tony Watson, but I’ve changed preferences a million times in the last few weeks) and roll with their current crop of righties. It’s entirely possible that this is too risky and that all of the options get hurt or take steps back. However, in my eyes, the four names mentioned above have too much upside for not even one stepping up and grabbing hold of the eighth inning. When you add in guys like Austin Maddox, Brandon Workman and Chandler Shepderd, they have some solid mid-tier depth as well. Dave Dombrowski will be focusing on offense this winter, but he’ll also have to decide just how much risk he’s willing to deal with in his bullpen behind Craig Kimbrel.