After an absolutely abysmal season from their pitching staff last season, the Red Sox should be hyper-focused on improving in that area above all others this offseason. That means their primary free agent targets and trade candidates should be guys who pitch for a living. Although there are some other roster needs, such as a regular second baseman and an outfielder of some sort, if the Red Sox don’t get better on the mound, then it won’t matter who they add on the other side of the ball.
There are certainly a few starting pitchers that would make sense, and that is perhaps the more pressing of the two sides of the staff, but the bullpen needs a revamp as well. Even with Matt Barnes back, the Red Sox have very little in terms of plus-talent in their reliever ranks. Red Sox relievers combined for -0.6 fWAR last season, which tied for 25th in all of baseball.
When scanning the ranks of potential free agent relievers, there are a few names that jump out, but to me, the one that is most intriguing and potentially the best fit is Keone Kela. The 27-year-old righty has spent the better part of the last three seasons in Pittsburgh. The most recent ended abruptly, as he only compiled two innings in 2020 before a forearm injury cost him the entire campaign. That obviously creates some lingering doubts, as signing a reliever always carries its own risks before even considering that he may still be recovering from an ailment. However, despite those injury questions, Kela would be an exceptional fit and, should he return to full health, could very well be the best reliever on the Red Sox roster for years to come.
That last point is important. I’ve been pretty vocal in saying that I think the Red Sox will be rebuilding for at least a couple years after hitting (what is hopefully) rock bottom in 2020. Of course I could be wrong, as the Red Sox went from last place to a division title very recently (2015 to 2016) and from last place to a World Series only a little further back (2012 to 2013). However, with the way the roster is currently constructed, unless they sign every big free agent on the market, I find it hard to envision a contending team showing up in 2021.
With all that written, that means signing a younger and budding star reliever like Kela could be great for 2021 and beyond. Rather than just being a stopgap to create a a more competent bullpen for a year or two, Kela could be a long-term solution. He will enter his age-28 season in 2021, and if he can overcome lingering injury issues and replicate what he did in Pittsburgh (and Texas before that), the Red Sox could have a top shelf reliever right in his prime. That “if” is doing some heavy lifting, but it’s an enticing possibility.
Just being young doesn’t make someone a good free agent target, however, but as alluded to before, Kela has the stuff to back up his candidacy. He didn’t have much time to show out in 2020, but from 2017 through 2019 he was an absolute force in the Pittsburgh and Texas bullpens. He posted a sub-100 ERA- (i.e. better than league-average) in each of those seasons, including a career-best mark of 49 in 2019. He did so by allowing very few runners, with his WHIP hovering between 0.91 and 1.10 in those three years.
However, what really stood out was his strikeout ability. Kela posted a strikeout rate of 27.7 percent or better in each of those three years and even during a down 2016 in Texas, he was still sitting at 30 percent. The Red Sox sat near the middle of the pack in bullpen strikeout rate last season, and plugging in Kela would help boost their standing. In an era where strikeouts are becoming the currency of the league more than ever, having relievers who don’t even let balls get into play is a necessity.
Kela would also fit in nicely if the Red Sox continue to focus on the curveball in the bullpen. Although he sprinkles in a changeup or two here and there, Kela is mostly a two-pitch hurler, combining a mid-90s fastball with an exceptional hook. In fact, Kela has had the second-most valuable curveball among MLB relievers since 2017, trailing only David Robertson. If Kela can bring that type of movement and effectiveness to Boston, he would easily jump to the top of the depth chart among Red Sox relievers and probably fit the closer role well. In Pittsburgh, Kela wasn’t really used in such a role, and the hope would be that the Red Sox are a bit more creative and use their best pitchers in the most important sports, but if they need to label someone the closer and Kela gets signed, he fits the bill as well as anyone.
Of course, there are still some drawbacks to consider beyond the injury concerns with Kela. He may strike out a lot of batters, but he can be a little erratic with his location, as his career walk rate sits at 9.4 percent. In 2020, the league-average walk rate for relievers was 10.2 percent, which was up from 9.6 percent in 2019 and 9.2 percent in both 2018 and 2017. At best, Kela is hovering in a league average position in that regard, which is concerning, especially if he loses any snap on his curveball.
To his credit, even if he walks batters somewhat frequently, he limits damage by simply avoiding opposing swings. His career home run per fly ball rate (11.3 percent) and hard contact allowed rate (31.1 percent) are both below last year’s league-averages for relievers. But it’s not just that opponents may not make a ton of good contact — they don’t make much contact at all. Kela ensures that by not only enticing batters to go after pitches outside of the zone, but by making sure they miss when they do. Kela has allowed contact on pitches outside the zone at a 51.9 percent rate in his career, while the league average has been around 60 percent the last four years.
When it comes down to it, the Red Sox need all the pitching help they can get, and it would be good if some of that help could be around for a while. Although some other teams may balk at signing Kela because of last year’s injury, any team that signs him would be getting an excellent reliever if he recovers completely and quickly. The Red Sox could use a few more excellent relievers, and with 2021 still up in the air in terms of their level of contention, it makes a lot of sense for them to bring in someone with as much upside as Kela.