This winter has been a historically slow one with the level of inactivity and just general lack of interest from teams on the free agent market was jarring to watch. It was a perfect storm of reasons — a CBA that encourages a lack of long-term spending, an arguably weak free agent class coming before a historic one, the growing popularity of hard rebuilds and a correspondingly diminishing emphasis on winning year in, year out, other reasons we won’t get into here — that led to a snoozefest of an offseason. We as Red Sox fans felt that firsthand with the extremely dragged out process that ended with the inevitable Boston signing of J.D. Martinez. Now, we’re less than two weeks from Opening Day around the league and most of those free agents have found new teams, with Jake Arrieta becoming the latest big name to sign, joining the Phillies on a three-year deal at the beginning of the week. That being said, while the very top of the class is now all employed, there are still a few impact players still available on the open market. With the Red Sox clearly in a win-now mode, should they consider getting involved in the market again? Specifically, should they take a look at right-handed reliever Greg Holland?
Holland, of course, is not a new name in baseball as it wasn’t too long ago that he was one of the truly elite relievers in the game helping lead the Royals to back-to-back World Series appearances. He became a full-time major leaguer back in 2011 and took over the closer role in Kansas City in the next season. During his five-year run with the Royals he put up an ERA above 3.00 just once and never posted a DRA (an all-encompassing pitching metric from Baseball Prospectus) worse than 30 percent better than the league-average pitcher. After missing the end of 2015 and all of 2016 with injury — we’ll get to that in a minute — he entered free agency last season looking for a prove-it deal. Holland got just that from the Rockies and spent much of the year as one of the best relievers in baseball yet again. By the end of the year he had posted a 3.61 ERA with a 76 DRA- (24 percent better than the league-average pitcher). The righty struck out eleven batters per nine innings, though had some control issues walking four batters per nine.
So, Holland wasn’t perfect in 2017 but he has a track record of being outstanding in the majors and came back for a full season in which he was still very good even if he didn’t end up being elite. How would he fit into the Red Sox bullpen, though?
There would presumably be a roadblock right from the start because I would think Holland wants to close where ever he goes. That wouldn’t happen in Boston, of course, since Craig Kimbrel is a person who exists. From Boston’s perspective, though, having someone like Holland behind Kimbrel would be a big help. If everything goes right, the Red Sox don’t need help from the right side. Carson Smith, Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes and Tyler Thornburg all have the talent to be more than serviceable in late-inning roles. However, all of them also have some fairly substantial question marks as well and it’s not all that hard to envision things going south in the ‘pen and the team needing to address this area at the trade deadline. Of course, the trade market for relievers in July can be quite expensive. Signing Holland now would give them their most stable non-Kimbrel option and in the case in which everyone stays healthy and effective would give Boston a truly elite group of righties in the late innings. Alex Cora would be able to rotate around his different options and keep everyone fresh through the season. Beyond the money, the only cost would be pushing someone like Brandon Workman or Robby Scott or someone else on that fringe-level to Triple-A.
Of course, none of this is to say that Holland isn’t a player without some questions of his own. That injury I mentioned before is not something that can be swept aside so easily. The three-time All-Star underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015, and while the track record for that procedure is not nearly as scary as it once was it’s still not something to take lightly. This is particularly true for a pitcher who turned 32 in November. Beyond the injury and the age, there’s also the late-season performance from Holland last year. He pitched to an ERA over 6.00 in the second half after pitching to a sub-2.00 ERA in the first half. Second half splits are surely overblown, but for a pitcher with so many risks it’s not great that he couldn’t stay dominant all year. It is worth noting, though, that most of his struggles came in August and he bounced back in September to allow an OPS below .400.
Beyond the risks with Holland himself, there is also the matter of what this means for the Red Sox payroll. There are some disagreements about what Boston’s payroll for luxury tax purposes currently sits at, but the consensus is somewhere around $230 million. If they go over the $237 mark, they’d move down ten spots in the 2019 draft. Holland’s market seems depreciated quite a bit relative to where it was expected to be at the start of the winter, but even with that in mind signing him would likely result in Boston going over that threshold. It’s something to consider, but ultimately it’s not something I’d worry about. There’s so much talk about the Red Sox being in this clear two-year window, and while I wouldn’t argue it’s as drastic as it’s made out it be it’s true that they are built to win right now. Moving back ten spots in a draft where they should be picking in the late 20’s shouldn’t be a big barrier, particularly in a winter where they are seemingly the only team willing to spend big money on their payroll. In fact, one could argue that if they were to take this plunge they should take it further and also go out and sign Alex Cobb. Even if they didn’t go that far, going over that threshold now would presumably make them less wary of making a big move at the trade deadline to put the roster over the top. It would be unfathomable to get to this point and then not do everything you can to improve the roster.
At the end of the day, there are points for and against the Red Sox getting involved with Greg Holland, and to my knowledge there has been no indication that they have actually shown interest. I think they probably should, though. In a crowded American League, the Red Sox should take advantage of everything they can, and this winter that means taking advantage of being the only team willing to spend. Holland could take their bullpen to the next level and give them an added layer of protection, all for the cost of Brandon Workman (or someone similar’s) roster spot along with a draft pick moving from something like the 27th pick to the 37th pick. If Holland is willing to come on a one- or two-year deal and willing to serve in a setup role, the Red Sox should be willing to improve their roster.