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A way-too-early look at free agent relievers

The Red Sox are doing great in 2018. They will probably do so in 2019 as well. But let’s take a look at bolstering the team’s “weakness”.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

It’s no secret fans don’t trust bullpens. Usually, it’s just a lot of smoke being blown about. If you stop the sample size at the end of July, the Red Sox bullpen was good, perhaps even great, debatably placing in the top five, despite the steps back for Joe Kelly, and arguably Heath Hembree.

However, in August, the pen has seemingly all but fallen apart. Now, I would never advise a person to take samples from just 40 innings of work, but the Red Sox bullpen is mustering a 4.81 FIP this month, which is the 9th worst in all of baseball. This can be just a blip on the radar, and to be honest, it probably is.

The Red Sox have used 11 relievers this month, and very few of them have been truly effective. Normally trustworthy relievers like Craig Kimbrel, Heath Hembree, and Matt Barnes have been under-performing. Tyler Thornburg has had his moments, but even he seems to be on shaky ground at times. Names like Drew Pomeranz, William Cuevas, Brian Johnson, and Brandon Workman have been successful by ERA (as has the entire bullpen, by and large, which I’d submit as proof that ERA isn’t everything), but give in to the same issues everyone else on the staff is. Outside of Barnes (oddly enough), all the struggling names have one thing in common this month: they are walking far too many batters.

Of the 11 relievers to take the mound for the Sox this month, only four have walked fewer than three batters per nine innings (which sounds arbitrary, but is probably where I draw the line before I say you have a problem with walking batters). Those four are Ryan Brasier, Barnes, Kelly, and Hector Velazquez. All four of these should ring bells, because odds are you greatly distrust at least one of these arms, and there’s also a chance you trust exactly none of them.

Texas Rangers v Boston Red Sox
Personally, I don’t trust Brasier’s success to hold up, long-term, and Velazquez was always pitching over his head. And you should all know how I feel about Kelly.
Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The Sox bullpen has given up 21 walks in 40.0 innings this month, which, small sample or not, is unacceptable. The only teams with bullpens that walk more batters per inning are the Orioles, White Sox, Cubs, and Pirates. Exactly one of those teams is a playoff team right now.

Ignoring whether we trust the four names who are technically succeeding, and whether we distrust the ones that are underperforming, the bullpen is always an area where a team can theoretically improve. The trade deadline has come and gone, and there’s a great chance that any potential relievers that could fall to us in the Waiver Trade window will just be claimed by the Yankees to block us (as they should do). Any improvement we get at the position, in my opinion is going to come from within. I’m big on Travis Lakins and hope he is given a chance, like Brasier was, but if not him or a miraculous Durbin Feltman call-up, I’m not sure help really is on the way.

That leaves me wondering whether it was a mistake to not go after Tony Watson or another arm in free agency, especially if there’s any truth to the Red Sox being willing to go beyond the 237 million dollar threshold (which they should have no reservations about right now). But thinking of regrets isn’t fun. So let’s take a super early look at the upcoming reliever market. With Kelly, Kimbrel, and Pomeranz as impending free agents (along with non-relievers), there will definitely be some holes in the bullpen to fill anyways.

Boston Red Sox v Toronto Blue Jays
Joe Kelly has not had a great 2018.
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

To do this, I took the entirety of the free agents available, via MLB Trade Rumors (although, I removed a few players like Nate Jones, to ensure the list came in at just below 50 names), and put them all into a custom table on FanGraphs for you to peruse at your leisure. If we want to analyze the options, and choose ones that best fit the desire to “throw strikes”/avoid walking batters, there are a few that jump out to me, that I’ll highlight below:

Shawn Kelley

Now I know what you are thinking: “Just what we need, another Carson Smith!”

If you haven’t heard, he was DFA’d by the Nationals, and then traded to the Athletics, because he showed disrespect, throwing a tantrum after giving up a dinger. Basically, sounds like Carson Smith, except Kelley didn’t hurt himself in the act of throwing a tantrum.

But let’s remove the attitude from the equation for just a moment. Just one, please. Carson Smith was on a roll prior to his injury. In his last ten games before he went down, he’d pitched 7.2 IP, walked zero batters, and struck out ten. He allowed two runs, but by all standards, he was finally performing in a Red Sox uniform. Shawn Kelley, similarly, was performing. This season, in 34 innings, Kelley has only allowed 1.59 BB/9, and kept runs mostly off the boards, or at least, to a better degree than Heath Hembree has done.

I believe, whole-heartedly, that the Red Sox need to keep Carson Smith going into next year (there’s discussion among many fans that Smith should just be non-tendered in the off-season, because he went too far in his post-injury comments, but that’s a discussion for later), especially if they let both Kelly and Kimbrel walk, due to the relative weakening of the pen. I just have faith in the team to take care of anybody who could pose as a problem, like Smith or Kelley, so I don’t want to read into perceived attitude issues, when I don’t have access to them.

Washington Nationals v Miami Marlins
Full disclosure, I was hoping for us to get Kelley a couple years back. So his name popped out easier than it would, otherwise.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Kelvin Herrera

Herrera was the one who got away. Twice. Third time is the charm.

The Red Sox were probably trying to get Herrera from the Royals. Then the Nationals swooped in. Then the Nationals became quasi-sellers, and decided to do nothing either way, which is working wonderfully for them, being 6 games back in the NL East (as of this writing), and 5.5 games back of the 2nd wild card spot. The ship has sailed for 2018, as he would 100% be claimed by somebody between the NL and AL (we’d be literally the last team on the claim list, because claims go through the same league first, and then the opposite league after, in order of reverse-record).

In 2019, the Red Sox will have a chance to bring him in. It’ll just cost money, and that is a commodity the Red Sox can afford to part with, fairly easily, at present.

Herrera has struggled a bit since going to the Nationals, so there’s justifiable worry about his arm going forward. It’s possible his performance was to blame on an injury that got worse without anyone realizing it, as he is presently on the Disabled List. Either way, if the Sox are looking for a bullpen arm, even if Herrera is seeking closer money, you know that Boston will be players here.

Joakim Soria

The final name I’m going to focus on was another popular trade target for readers of this blog. Soria has had himself a career year. The last time his peripherals looked this good, was back in 2009, which was ages ago, in baseball terms.

Colorado Rockies v Milwaukee Brewers
Joakim Soria is not going to hit the free agency market, likely, but let’s hope.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Despite the fact he’s now solidly in his mid-30’s (34, he’ll be 35 in May), he’s kept his velocity up, and has me wondering when his age-related decline will be coming on. Still further, I wonder how much a decline in velocity is actually going to effect him. He might be in that rare class of pitcher (Koji Uehara, anyone?) who gets better as he ages, due to getting a high number of swing and misses on wipeout stuff. At least, that’s how it’s looked this season.

He was another one we could have had at the trade deadline, and may be my preferred option to target in the off-season on a one or two year deal.

Well, that is assuming the Brewers don’t exercise their 10 million dollar option on him. Which they will. Why wouldn’t they? But baseball is weird now, so who knows. Cross your fingers.

It may be too late to make a move in 2018, but 2019 is on the way, and it’s important to plan for the future, even this early. What do you think the plan should be, regarding our current relief core, and how do you believe the Sox should address the bullpen (as of right now) in the upcoming off-season?