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Free agency isn’t the only way to improve the bullpen

The assumption has been that the Red Sox will sign a reliever, but what about trading?

League Championship Series - Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros - Game Five Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Look, we know that barring any major surprises the Red Sox only have one task remaining on their to-do list this winter: Grabbing another reliever. We know that because it’s been written a million times in a million different ways by everyone who covers the team, including this very website. There’s not much else to say at this point in the winter! In fact, I can only speak for myself but I’m starting to run out of ways to say this same thing. It wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world to just write a template to copy/paste to the top of every post, ya know?

Anyway, I realize no one wants to listen to me complain about writing about baseball, so let’s get on to the topic at hand, yeah? The assumption, beyond the simple assumption that the Red Sox will add a reliever, is that the Red Sox will add a reliever through free agency. Virtually every rumor we’ve heard about Boston and the bullpen market has been with free agents, which makes sense. There are plenty of desirable targets in free agency, and while Dave Dombrowski has shown no hesitation towards trading for late-inning relievers, the track record could scare him off. That’s probably not the best way to manage a roster, but human nature is rarely ideal. It’s easier to just sign a guy for money, so it makes sense that the targets we’ve heard the most about are guys like Craig Kimbrel (though most of the talk indicates he’s likely not coming back), Adam Ottavino, David Robertson and Joakim Soria, among others.

Obviously, free agency only represents half of the available market for any position. The trade market is available, and there are always relievers available from rebuilding teams. Now, this is a unique market in that it’s usually better for selling teams to trade bullpen pieces at the trade deadline. There’s not another trade market like that, which is why it can be a bit slower than others this time of year. However, a good trade is a good trade and teams will take one if they can get one. It was only a few weeks ago when we saw Edwin Diaz get traded to the Mets. So, should the Red Sox be looking more at trade possibilities than they seemingly have?

Colorado Rockies v Arizona Diamondbacks
Adam Ottavino
Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

The first order of business is simply determining if there are any worthwhile trade targets out there for the Red Sox. These are obviously going to come from rebuilding teams, since there is always room for a good bullpen arm on contenders. These are also going to be true late-inning arms, as there’s no point in Boston grabbing another midlevel arm to add to their potential logjam. It’s high-leverage or bust at this point. With all of that in mind, here is a quick list I threw together of late-inning arms from rebuilding clubs that could possibly be available. Keep in mind that this list is far from official and I’m not saying that all of these names will be available.

  • Archie Bradley (I have no idea what the Diamondbacks are doing. He’s probably not available, but maybe!)
  • Raisel Iglesias (Recently extended, probably not being traded any time soon.)
  • Drew Steckenrider (Everyone on the Marlins is available.)
  • Felipe Vazquez (As with Arizona, I’m not sure what Pittsburgh’s plan is. After acquiring Keone Kela last summer, though, maybe they’d trade Vazquez.)
  • Kirby Yates and Craig Stammen (These aren’t the biggest names, but the Padres have two intriguing righties.)
  • Will Smith (A longtime favorite of mine, but the Giants are another team on which I have no read.)
  • Shane Greene (An underrated closer, the Tigers could be looking to open up the ninth inning for the younger Joe Jimenez.)

This is not a complete list, but these are names that could legitimately join Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier in the late innings and help give the Red Sox the bullpen help they need. The question, though, is if targeting one of the names listed above — or someone not listed — is a better strategy than simply going after the names we’ve all heard about in free agency.

Japan v MLB All Stars - Game 6
Kirby Yates
Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

The pros with the trade market versus free agency mostly come down to how much the Red Sox are worried about their future, both on the field and in terms of the luxury tax. The nature of baseball economics mean that free agents are almost always going to be at or near the end of their prime, and for relievers in particular the end can come with little warning at all. That’s certainly not to say all free agent relievers are doomed, but it’s a legitimate concern. Moving to the trade market allows for teams to acquire talent younger than what they’d be able to find on the open market, and hopefully getting a longer period of peak performance. Furthermore, they are going to be cheaper, particularly if they haven’t been a closer. This is straightforward, as players make less if they are yet to hit the open market. If the Red Sox want to get their payroll down at some point, this is one way to do it.

On the other hand, the cons are pretty clear as well, and they’re also pretty simple. The downside of trading is that, well, you have to trade. In free agency, you may be taking a bit more risk and you may be reaching into your wallet and increasing your payroll and a slightly inefficient rate, but you also don’t have to give anything else up. As a buyer on the trade market, you almost always are giving up prospects and taking on money, albeit at a lower rate. Still, it’s the prospects that are the focus here, as the way to offset any money issues is by developing prospects who eventually come up and fill holes at a rate below the market.

So, where does that leave the Red Sox? Well, it makes sense that they are mostly focused on the free agent market, at least if you believe the reports. No team should ever turn a blind eye towards any portion of the market, and Dombrowski wouldn’t be doing his job if he wasn’t keeping tabs on the trade market. That being said, the Red Sox want to rebuild their farm system right now while still competing. The latter is the priority, but you can do both by just spending money in free agency. Again, if someone like Kirby Yates is available for way cheaper than he should be, they should absolutely jump all over it. More than likely, however, the best move for winning now and winning later is just reaching into the wallet and paying one of the top options available in free agency.