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Ranking the top relievers left in free agency

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Who do you prefer?

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Yes, this is another post about relievers. I don’t want to say I’m sick of writing about relievers because that would be a lie, but also I’m a little sick of writing about the same relievers. Such is life right now for those who write about and discuss the Red Sox on a regular basis these days. It’s just about all that is going on with this team as we wait for the truck to be packed up and head to Fort Myers in early February. What I’m trying to say is feel sorry for me my life is so hard right now.

Now that you’re done pitying me, we can get to the matter at hand. At this point, we know the drill. The Red Sox say they are fine with Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier as the top two arms in their bullpen. That may be partially true, but it’s still clear they want to add another late-inning arm to that group. There are plenty of non-elite arms that could be signed to a cheaper deal and given a chance to fight with those two guys for a closer role, such as Sergio Romo, Brad Brach and Justin Wilson, among others. There’s merit to signing any of those pitchers, but they would be a bit of a letdown given the big names still available at the top of the class. The way I see it, there are five big, late-inning arms that can be signed for nothing but money. They are, in alphabetical order: Cody Allen, Zach Britton, Craig Kimbrel, Kelvin Herrera and Adam Ottavino. If we assume the Red Sox want to head to spring training with at least one of these pitchers on their roster, let’s rank them by how much we want them. It goes without saying, but this is totally subjective and about how I feel about them rather than how I think the team might feel.

5. Zach Britton

Starting at the bottom, I am terrified of Zach Britton and I can’t really explain why. I know that’s not great since, ya know, my job is to say things and explain them. Britton was, not too long ago, arguably the best reliever in baseball for a two-year stretch. That has made him an attractive free agent. However, his last two seasons have been marred by injury, and when he has pitched he hasn’t been quite the same. Now, part of that is small sample concerns — his strikeout rates have been under eight per nine innings in each of the last two years, but his swinging strike rates have suggested he should be better over a larger sample. Another part is that he hasn’t been able to get in a groove. There is some belief that a full season, including spring training, of health will allow Britton to get back to something close to his old self.

I’m not as confident in that, largely because of his poor command the last two years. By pure talent I might put Britton as high as third on this list, but it seems he will be commanding a contract closer to the top two than the bottom two, and I wouldn’t be willing to pay that. If he was the guy the Red Sox ended up with, I’m sure I could talk myself into it, but I wouldn’t be overly excited.

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4. Kelvin Herrera

The next two (along with Britton) are, I think, very close in the rankings, but Herrera’s health questions put him further down the list. The former Royals star probably has the safest profile of the bottom three if we assume health, but that’s a big assumption. Herrera is coming off a season that was shortened by a foot injury and Opening Day is not a sure thing for the righty. Working to Herrera’s advantage here is that he is the youngest of this group (he just turned 29), he has the safest command profile, and he has plenty of positive experience in the postseason. On the other hand, the injury is a big mark on the negative side as well as the fact that he doesn’t have the high strikeout totals to fall back on. Herrera relies more on command and control, which has worked well for him but also gives him less room for error moving forward. Herrera may be more likely to sign here than it seems given the team’s interest in him at the trade deadline, and he could possibly be had on a one-year, make-good deal at this point. As with Britton, I could talk myself into it but I wouldn’t be overly excited.

3. Cody Allen

The final member of this trio in the bottom tier of this top five is the former Indians closer, who I’m a bit surprised is so underrated this winter. On the one hand, it’s understandable given that he’s coming off such a tough season and it makes sense that he’s not among the top two. However, Britton and Herrera weren’t exactly dominant in 2018 and they both have more injury question than Allen. Furthermore, Allen was excellent for a very good team for a long time in the ninth inning, and he’s only 30 years old. I wrote about the righty in length on Thursday, so I won’t repeat myself too much here. All I’ll say is that he drops to a one-year deal he’d be a tremendous fit. The flyball tendencies are scary and could lead to home run issues, but they also play into Boston’s style and their superb outfield defense. Obviously he isn’t my top choice since he’s number three here, but if the Red Sox miss out on the top two then he’s my preference in this crowded bottom tier.

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2. Adam Ottavino

The top two is pretty much the consensus, at least if you take contract value out of it. Obviously, you can’t do that, but I think it’s important in this conversation. Look, Ottavino is very good and is coming off a tremendous season for a Rockies team that is obviously not known for fostering great pitching. He struck out 13 batters per nine innings and his slider is one of the nastiest pitches in baseball. That being said, I think people are a little too quick to put him on the same level as Kimbrel. Ottavino made legitimate changes to help his game in 2018 and there’s every reason to think he can carry that forward for at least a season or two. However, this was also the first truly elite season he ever put up and just two years ago he walked a whopping 6.6 batters per nine innings. There’s not a lot of consistency here, and if you are going to be a top-tier player you need consistency, even as a reliever. If the contracts between him and Kimbrel are significantly different, I can certainly see the case for Ottavino here and wouldn’t be disappointed to have him in Boston. That said, I think in terms of talent Ottavino is much closer to the bottom three than he is to number one.

1. Craig Kimbrel

Kimbrel is in a tier by himself here, and he’s in a tier that is almost unmatched in baseball history. It’s easy to look at what he did in the postseason and be scared off, but that’s ignoring the massive sample of the rest of his career. The big knock on Kimbrel is, of course, the control, and it’s entirely fair. He walked 4.5 batters per nine last year and 5.1 per nine in 2016. Those numbers aren’t great! However, control is an issue for everyone else on this list, too, besides Herrera. Even with those walks, though, Kimbrel has been dominant. That 2016 season is really the only that can’t be described as great, and even in that year he was 36 percent better than league-average by DRA. Kimbrel is an all-time great in his prime and his market is collapsing to the point that he likely isn’t going to cost some sort of record-setting contract. There are some fine consolation prizes available in free agency this year, but Kimbrel is the clear top choice and given the way his market is trending I’d be disappointed if he’s not back in Boston.

Note: An earlier version of this post included David Robertson in the second spot between Kimbrel and Ottavino.