Every Red Sox offseason seems to consist of non-stop speculation about improving the bullpen, and I’m here for it. There are many ways to bolster a bullpen, but my belief is to go after buy-lows on the free agent market, and avoid guys coming off career years looking for top dollar. Kirby Yates is my favorite free agent reliever who fits the buy-low bill, and he’s a guy who has the potential to provide the Red Sox with much-needed bullpen help at a bargain price.
After being selected off waivers by the San Diego Padres in 2017, Yates has been one of baseball’s most consistent relievers. He’s great at keeping the ball in the park, strikes out a ton of batters, and limits walks. In 2019, not only were his both ERA and FIP below 1.40, but he was among the top two in home runs allowed per 9 innings, top five in strikeouts per nine, and top 15 in walks per nine. He finished second in all of baseball in fWAR (and first in the National League) among relievers that year. On top of all that, both his ERA and walk rate have improved in each of his 3 full years with the Padres.
One of the main reasons for Yates’ production with the Padres is the development of his splitter. Not coincidentally, he introduced this splitter when that breakout first happened in 2017, and has had immense success using it. Since its introduction, opposing hitters have never recorded a batting average above .165 against the pitch. Yates’ splitter is the key to his success, and a pitch I’d love to see coming out of the Red Sox’ bullpen.
So, why would Yates be a buy-low if he’s been so good? Well, his 2020 was a disaster, to put it lightly. He threw just 4.1 innings, and was rocked to the tune of a 12.46 ERA before undergoing season-ending surgery to address bone chips in his right elbow. His injury clearly played a significant role in his poor performance, and elbow problems are no joke.
It’s really a bad break for Yates, who, had he hit free agency last year, would’ve almost certainly received a multi-year deal with an average annual value in the tens of millions. Now, factoring in his injury and a potentially depressed market due to COVID-19, he’s likely looking at a one-year “prove-it” deal. FanGraphs projects him to receive a one-year, $7 million contract, while MLB Trade Rumors comes in at an even lower price of $5 million for one year, both of which is are undoubtedly bargains for the player he was in 2019.
However, buying into Yates means you’re also taking on his high injury risk. I’ve seen no updates regarding his health/progress, so this could be a total shot in the dark, though there’s no indication to this point that he’s in danger of missing time at the start of 2021. But if he is healthy, his ceiling is literally the best reliever in baseball. The risk-reward with Yates is definitely higher on the reward side when the contract is as short and cheap as the predictions call for, which makes him a great free agent for the Red Sox to take a chance on.