It seems that, putting aside specific positional needs, the biggest focus for the Red Sox’ front office this winter has simply been to get the band back together. Can you blame them? Boston is coming off the best season in franchise history, having just won 108 games and rolling through one of the most competitive playoff fields in recent memory. Who would watch all of that unfold and not think that hey, maybe we should just try to do that again? After the season ended, the team lost four major players to free agency, and they’ve been connected to some degree to pretty much all of them. Steve Pearce is already back, as the team wasted little time on that front. Nathan Eovaldi has been a major target for them, with Peter Abraham saying on Monday that the team really, really wants the starter back. Craig Kimbrel’s market hasn’t really been too hot yet, but the Red Sox have been at least on the periphery of every report from the top reliever on the market.
Then, there’s Joe Kelly. Kelly was every bit the postseason hero of anyone else on this Red Sox roster, and he grew something of a cult fanbase between that October performance along with the fights with the Yankees earlier in the season. Despite all of that, Boston’s connection to the righty has seemed, from the outside, weaker with him than any of the other departing free agents. Now, it should be mentioned that Kelly’s market has been largely stagnant as he presumably waits for some of the bigger names to move before signing a deal, so the Red Sox aren’t necessarily ignoring Kelly. Should he be a real target for the team, though?
The right-handers time in Boston has been as much of a rollercoaster as just about any other player in recent memory. He came over in one of the most maligned trades the team has made in a decade when they sent John Lackey to St. Louis for Kelly and Allen Craig. For a long, long time, that deal seemed like a disaster. Craig obviously never got going, and Kelly really hadn’t either. Kelly spent a year and a half trying to start, and it was an unmitigated disaster. Despite the “great stuff” he just couldn’t make it work in longer stints. The team finally transitioned him to the bullpen — and it was clear he had to make that move long before they did it — and he looked much better.
After a strong close to 2016, there was hope he’d thrive in his new role out of the bullpen. In 2017, he certainly showed flashes and he even finished the season with a sub-3.00 ERA! Pretty good! Unfortunately, he also didn’t have the strikeout numbers you’d expect for a reliever of his profile, and he still struggled with control. Because of that he had a FIP 70 points higher than his ERA and a DRA 150 points higher. Then, in 2018, he had the big postseason and also was great to start the regular season. Based on the bookends of the year, Kelly had finally put it all together and was ready to dominate out of the bullpen as we always believed he was destined to do.
Unfortunately, you can’t just ignore the large middle portion of the season when Kelly was mediocre-at-best. The righty fairly quickly lost his late-inning role in the bullpen and had to work to earn that trust back. Once again, he was failing to get whiffs despite the eye-popping velocity and he was really struggling to hit the zone. That has been the theme over his career and it’s the biggest concern with Kelly moving forward. There’s just been consistent, year-to-year control problems. In all three seasons he has pitched the majority of the year out of the Red Sox bullpen, he’s walked over four batters per nine innings. Pitchers can get away with that, and Kelly has at times as well. It’s a lot easier if you can pair those walks with huge strikeout rates, though, and other than month-long flashes the strikeouts just haven’t been there.
So, Kelly is flawed, but I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone. It’s just a matter of deciding how much the good is worth when weighed against the bad. To determine his market, we’ll look at four big free agent predictors. We have MLB Trade Rumors, Jon Heyman, Kiley McDaniel and Jim Bowden, the latter of whom is the all-time GOAT in this exercise for whatever that’s worth. Of the five predictions — Heyman has his own prediction as well as one from an industry expert — four predict three-year deals for Kelly. That seems crazy to me, and I suspect that will seem crazy for a Red Sox team that has seen the good but has also seen a whole lot of bad from the righty over the years.
The Red Sox are trying to get the band back together, and nobody is going to blame them. With each of their free agents, though, they need to try and put a price on recent nostalgia and local love. Kelly might be the most difficult guy for whom you can pin down a price. I suspect, based on the predictions above, Kelly really could get a three-year deal, and if that’s the case it’ll be in a different uniform. Boston will be in this market until the end, but it’s hard to blame them for being more hesitant with Kelly than the other free agents given the wildly uneven performances they’ve seen from him for the better part of four years.