For the next couple of weeks, everyone in Boston’s eyes are going to be glued to the third base trade market. There is no arguing that this doesn’t make sense, as the Red Sox have gotten astonishingly little from the hot corner in 2017. Filling this hole is almost certainly Dave Dombrowski’s priority, and it almost certainly should be. That being said, I’m looking in a different direction for the Red Sox in this trade period.
Just looking at the numbers, Boston has gotten solid production from their bullpen all year long. Craig Kimbrel has been absurd in the ninth inning. Matt Barnes has been quietly strong holding down the eighth despite some high-leverage flubs here and there. Joe Kelly, now on the disabled list, has probably been the second-best reliever in the bullpen despite not being able to throw two days in a row. Heath Hembree has been strong in the middle innings. Robby Scott has stepped up as a solid primary lefty, although he’s starting to trend downhill.
For all of that success, though, there is plenty of reason to be wary about this group moving forward. It’s not a unit that needs a complete overhaul a la the Washington Nationals. Instead, they could just use one good arm to slot behind Kimbrel and push everyone down by one peg. All of the names above have their flaws. Barnes has lapses in control. Kelly is hurt and is prone to big home runs. Heath Hembree has platoon issues and is also prone to hard contact. Scott’s stuff doesn’t fit for such a high-profile role, and it’s showing in his recent results. In an ideal world, Carson Smith will come back soon and look like the guy he was in Seattle. If that were the case, they’d have their elite arm to pair with Kimbrel.
It’s not just a primary setup man this bullpen could use. As I alluded to above, Scott is probably is probably better suited as the second lefty in a bullpen rather than the primary one. If they can push him to slightly lower leverage situations with a better lefty to lean on later, they’d be much more prepared for a postseason run. That would also push Fernando Abad out of the bullpen entirely. Although Abad’s results have been better than he’s been given credit for, the peripherals still suggest he’s a pitcher the team wouldn’t miss all that much.
In my ideal world, the Red Sox would acquire a target to kill two birds with one stone. For full disclosure, my original target was going to be Sean Doolittle before the stupid Nationals stole him from me. Fortunately, there are a couple of other good lefties available. Brad Hand is probably the most intriguing, but I think his price tag is going to be a little too much for my liking. Instead, I’ll look to Detroit at Justin Wilson.
While he isn’t the biggest name, Wilson has been one of the better relievers in the game over the last few seasons. His ERAs have varied a bit in the last three seasons, but he’s posted a FIP of 3.13 or lower in each season and has been comfortably better-than-average by DRA in each season as well. This season, a year in which he has been promoted to the closer role, has been his the best of his career. Now 29 years old (he’ll turn 30 in August), the southpaw has pitched to a 2.29 ERA in 35 1⁄3 innings over 37 outings. In that time he has racked up 50 strikeouts (12.7 per nine innings) with just 13 walks (3.3 per nine innings).
These aren’t just fluky numbers, either. Wilson’s stuff has taken a major jump forward, which can be seen by his six percentage point jump in swinging strike rate, per Baseball Prospectus. That is a massive jump that has lifted him from being above average in this area to being in the top eight percent. Even better, most of these swinging strikes have come on pitches in the zone. To me, the true test of good stuff is when a pitcher can get opponents to regularly whiff on strikes. Here are the six pitchers who have allowed the least amount of contact on pitches in the zone this year, with a minimum of 500 pitches thrown.
- Craig Kimbrel
- Trevor Rosenthal
- Dellin Betances
- Koji Uehara
- Kenley Jansen
- Justin Wilson
That....that is a good group. There are tangible changes that have led to this breakout, too. After being a fastball/sinker pitcher a year ago, he has essentially ditched the sinker in 2017 to lean much more heavily on his 96 mph fastball. Additionally, he’s stopped throwing his curveball to throw more of his higher-velocity sliders. Those two pitches, to go along with a strong cutter, give him a repertoire that has allowed him to have success against both righties and lefties. In fact, he has allowed an OPS under .500 to right-handed hitters this year while allowing left-handed batters to post a .680 OPS. That is a pitcher who can be inserted into the eighth inning for most games while still being good enough against lefties to come in earlier if the situation calls for it.
So, how much will all of this cost them? Well, in terms of cash money, not all that much. Wilson is still in arbitration, and is under contract for only $2.7 million for this season. That will not do damage to Boston’s goal of staying under the luxury tax. He’s also under team control for next year, and while he’s looking at a sizeable raise it still won’t be anything close to an unreasonable cost.
In terms of prospects, Wilson could cost quite a bit. There are always a lot of teams looking for bullpen help at the deadline, and their price tag is always a little larger than one would expect. On the other hand, the Nationals gave up a little less than I’d have expected for their Doolittle/Ryan Madson package, although they certainly didn’t give up nothing. Looking at last year’s deadline, there are solid comps to be made with Will Smith and Zach Duke. The former had similar numbers, but was under control a little longer. The latter was having a very good season and was also under control for another year-and-a-half, but he didn’t have Wilson’s track record. Smith was traded for a former first-round pick with good potential and a former top-100 prospect who was close to the majors. The latter was traded for a former second round pick who was close to the majors.
To get Wilson, the Red Sox would have to give up something that would hurt, but they wouldn’t have to give up any of their “big” prospects. To me, that means they would be able to hold on to Rafael Devers, Jason Groome, Michael Chavis and Bryan Mata, as well as guys like Daniel Flores, Tanner Houck and Cole Brannen who they just acquired. Anyone else is fair game to me, and while losing them would hurt I could live with it. In terms of an actual package, I legitimately hate doing this. I am on the verge of an anxiety attack as I type this. I’d probably start with Sam Travis, and add someone like Travis Lakins, Shaun Anderson or Mike Shawaryn. Perhaps I’d have to add someone like Jake Cosart or Teddy Stankiewicz. I don’t know. I can’t breathe.
Either way, I’d be willing to pay that price. Wilson would give the Red Sox a dynamic pitcher to pair with Kimbrel while also giving them the strongest presence they’ve had from the left side since Andrew Miller left. In the world where they get Smith back at full strength, all of a sudden they’d be looking at a dominant trio at the end of games. Even if they didn’t, they’d have a bullpen that could help make a postseason run. Plus, they’d have him for 2018, too. Any reliever that the team would feel comfortable with in the eighth inning is going to cost a fairly significant price, but acquiring Wilson would address two weaknesses with one shot and wouldn’t cost any of the elite prospects. That’s good enough for me.