If you’re willing to take the Red Sox and their front office at their word, they are essentially done tinkering with their roster. They brought back a couple of key October pieces in Steve Pearce and Nathan Eovaldi and then supplemented their shaky bullpen with a whole lot of minor-league signings hoping one or two would stick. Beyond that, its been mostly a quiet winter for the World Champs. On the one hand, we really don’t have any choice but to take them at their word, at least for now. There hasn’t been any chatter from reporters that the team is still looking at major-league caliber relievers on the free agent market or in trade talks. The only talk we’ve heard about the topic this winter is from them. If that’s the only voice we hear, it’s the one we have to listen to, ya know? There’s also some logic behind their apparent strategy if you decide you absolutely have to stay under the highest luxury tax threshold. I would disagree with that assertion, as we’ve discussed numerous times over the last year or so, but I don’t run the team.
On the other hand, we absolutely don’t have to take the team and its front office at its word. Dave Dombrowski has seemingly been a bit more straight-forward with his public comments than previous Red Sox regimes, but it’s always important to remember there’s a reason executives say everything they do in the public. Most of the time, it has to do with leverage, whether it be on the trade market or with free agents. Remember last year when everyone in the world knew the Red Sox needed another bat in the middle of their lineup but Dombrowski said a million times he was comfortable with the hitters already on the roster? They, of course, still signed J.D. Martinez after all of that. Last year with the lineup and this year with the bullpen are not totally analogous, but it’s good to keep that experience in mind right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I wouldn’t bet on anything, but I will believe they are totally out on Craig Kimbrel or any other reliever looking for a major-league deal only when they are all off the market and the Red Sox have zero of them. And if they are indeed just posturing and still thinking about signing one of these guys, they’d be smart to stop getting cute and get the deal done now.
The issue with continuing to delay signing players you think can help you in the regular season is that, well, spring training is about to start! It doesn’t really seem that way because it’s still freezing out and more importantly there are still multiple legitimate superstars available on the free agent market, but it’s true! The Athletics open up their camp today, and the Red Sox have their pitchers and catchers reporting in just a couple days. Things are getting started, and while spring training is a mostly boring period for us it is actually important for players. They obviously work out all winter, but it’s also a less regimented schedule. The six weeks or so of spring training are crucial to get back into game shape and get their timing back. It’s shown up in the last couple of years, too.
In fact, one example of this is with Kimbrel himself, though it’s not exactly the same situation as the others we’ll mention here. Still, the former (and still maybe future) Red Sox closer didn’t have a full and normal spring training last year. This, of course, was not because he didn’t have a contract until midway through camp. Instead, Kimbrel was dealing with very serious health concerns with his newborn daughter and spending much of camp in Boston with her. It goes without saying that this was out of his control and he obviously did the right thing by forgetting about baseball to be with his wife and daughter. It also was undoubtedly part of the reason he struggled with control so often in 2018. To put all of the blame on a lack of camp probably wouldn’t be fair, but it would be equally naive to dismiss the idea completely.
It’s not just Kimbrel, either. Last year, if you’ll recall, the offseason around baseball was similar to this year’s in that it was....very slow. There were a whole bunch of notable free agents signed after March began, and many of them saw their performances suffer. Here’s a quick rundown of those players.
- Lance Lynn had a 128 ERA+ in his final three years before free agency. After signing on March 12 with the Twins, he pitched to an 86 ERA+ in 20 starts with them before being traded, and he was worse than that earlier in the year. At the end of the season with the Yankees he was back to above-average numbers.
- Neil Walker also signed on March 12. He’d been an above-average hitter in every year of his career but then put up a .563 OPS in the first half with the Yankees. He recovered with a .788 OPS in the second half, but it was still the worst season of his career.
- Carlos Gomez signed earlier on March 3, but he still had his worst season of his career by OPS+ since 2010. It’s worth noting, though, that he was better in the first half than the second.
- Jake Arrieta is yet another free agent who signed on March 12, and he had his worst season since breaking out with the Cubs. He’s another guy who played better in the first half than the second half.
- Alex Cobb didn’t sign with the Orioles until March 21. Prior to 2018 he had struggled with injuries but in years in which he pitched at least 50 innings he was always at least average and usually better. Last year he pitched to an 85 ERA+ and was straight-up atrocious at the start of the year before settling in later on.
Now, it’s worth noting a few things here. For one, not every player who signs after camp starts struggles. Martinez signed with the Red Sox a few days after camp started last year and he was pretty decent. On top of that, this sample is of free agents who are by definition on the older end, so decline in performance isn’t exactly unexpected regardless of when they sign. Not all of this is 100 percent because of late starts. They being said, it certainly plays a role and it would be silly to dismiss it entirely. These players certainly seem to flame out — particularly early in seasons — at a higher rate than free agents who sign in a more timely manner.
So, the Red Sox would be wise to decide here and now whether or not they’re really done. Maybe they already have like they’ve said and I’m just yelling into the abyss. Wouldn’t be the first time! Still, as long as Kimbrel — or Sergio Romo or Bud Norris or Adam Warren or Tony Sipp — is available there will be some temptation. Signing Kimbrel in March wouldn’t be a bad move, or at least it wouldn’t be something I’d complain about. It would, however, be worse than signing him now. That goes for anyone they think can help the major-league roster. We have enough recent history to know players need full camps to perform at their best, and any free agent signing would be a play to win in 2019. Maximize that opportunity, sign another reliever, and do it in the next couple of days.