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2021-2022 Offseason Preview: The relief pitching market

Who could the Red Sox target in the bullpen?

Los Angeles Angels v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

With option decisions having been made and the five-day window after the World Series closed, we are now officially in free agency and player movement should be upon us. (The CBA situation is likely to slow down that progress, but players can change teams now.) For the coming week, every day we will look at a new position group of free agents and trade candidates, finding some who may or may not be fits for the Boston Red Sox this winter. Note that this is not a complete list of free agents and trade targets. Today we finish up with a look at the reliever market.

Where the Red Sox stand now

To me, this is the area where the Red Sox clearly need the most help, and that is especially true if they are considering Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock as part of the rotation group. They could both be in the bullpen to start the season, but if the plan is for them to be six and seven on the depth chart, they also need to make sure they have enough bullpen arms to fill out the group without them included. Right now, they very much do not.

In terms of what they do have right now, it’s not pretty. Matt Barnes is a giant question mark after his Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde season in 2021, and he’s probably the top arm in the group right now. Josh Taylor is a really solid lefty, though probably not someone you want in your top three in the bullpen. Ditto Darwinzon Hernandez. Ryan Brasier, Austin Davis Hirokazu Sawamura, and Phillips Valdez can all play big-league roles, but they are more in the middle relief mold than someone you want playing a key role.

So when you put it all together, and also add in some intriguing minor leaguers like Durbin Feltman and Kaleb Ort, the Red Sox have decent middle relief depth, but not nearly enough top-end talent. That likely means keeping one of Whitlock or Houck in the bullpen, or being extremely aggressive for top-end talent this winter. And it should be noted that doesn’t always mean the top-end names, though when you need as much help as this group does in the late innings it probably means at least one big name should be brought in.

Division Series - Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Two Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Free Agents

2021 stats and team(s) in parentheses.

This is not a comprehensive list, but rather some hand-picked interesting names. A full list can be found here.

  • Raisel Iglesias (LAA; 65 G, 70 IP, 2.57 ERA, 2.83 FIP, 2.0 fWAR)
  • Kenley Jansen (LAD; 69 G, 69 IP, 2.22 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 1.8 fWAR)
  • Collin McHugh (TB; 37 G, 64 IP, 1.55 ERA, 2.12 FIP, 1.8 fWAR)
  • Ryan Tepera (CHC/CHW; 65 G, 61.1 IP, 2.79 ERA, 2.73 FIP, 1.6 fWAR)
  • Aaron Loup (NYM; 65 G, 56.2 IP, 0.95 ERA, 2.45 FIP, 1.6 fWAR)
  • Andrew Chafin (CHC/OAK; 71 G, 68.2 IP, 1.83 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 1.4 fWAR)
  • Kendall Graveman (SEA/HOU; 53 G, 56 IP, 1.77 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 1.1 fWAR)
  • Mark Melancon (SD; 64 G, 64.2 IP, 2.23 ERA, 3.35 FIP, 1.1 fWAR)
  • Jimmy Nelson (LAD; 28 G, 29 IP, 1.86 ERA, 1.89 FIP, 0.9 fWAR)
  • Steve Cishek (LAA; 74 G, 68.1 IP, 3.42 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 0.9 fWAR)
  • Joe Kelly (LAD; 48 G, 44 IP, 2.86 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 0.7 fWAR)
  • Corey Knebel (LAD; 27 G, 25.2 IP, 2.45 ERA, 2.90 FIP, 0.6 fWAR)
  • Héctor Neris (PHI; 74 G, 74.1 IP, 3.63 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 0.6 fWAR)
  • Adam Ottavino (BOS; 69 G, 62 IP, 4.21 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 0.5 fWAR)
  • David Phelps (TOR; 11 G, 10.1 IP, 0.87 ERA, 1.72 FIP, 0.4 fWAR)
  • Yimi García (MIA/HOU; 62 G, 57.2 IP, 4.21 ERA, 3.88 FIP, 0.4 fWAR)
  • Archie Bradley (PHI; 53 G, 51 IP, 3.71 ERA, 4.35 FIP, 0.3 fWAR)

While the Red Sox front office had a great offseason by and large last winter, one of the big missed opportunities in my mind was not getting Raisel Iglesias. The Reds were giving him away for essentially free to just take his modest salary off their hands, and the Angels were related with one of the best relievers in the league for the 2021 season. He’s the best reliever available now, but he’ll cost both big money and a draft pick if the Red Sox want to amend their mistake from last winter. I’m not as enamored by the possibility with the draft pick attached, but given how dire the need is it’s at least something they have to consider.

My ideal scenario is probably for the Red Sox to make a run at Kenley Jansen, who has been one of the best relievers in the game for the better part of the last decade. There have been some peaks and valleys in recent years, but I think that’s a bit overblown. Overall he’s been good and extremely consistent, especially for this position. It’s hard for me to see him leaving L.A., but if he does the Red Sox should be all over it since he would cost only money, not a draft pick.

Beyond that clear top two, there are a lot of good options though all with flaws. McHugh has never been as good as he was in 2021. Loup and Chafin are getting up in age and are both lefties. To me, the Red Sox should focus on high-end righties. Graveman is another one-year wonder. Melancon has a history in Boston, and not a great one.

If I had to pick a group of three here, I’d probably go Tepera, Nelson, and Phelps. But there are a lot of options and coming from the Rays organization, Chaim Bloom has been trusted to build a workable bullpen out of nothing.

Potential Trade Partners

  • Minnesota Twins: If the Twins go into a bridge year type mode for this year, Taylor Rogers and Tyler Duffy would be big-time potential targets.
  • Tampa Bay Rays: Since they can always summon all-world relievers from The Ether, arb-eligible players like Andrew Kittredge and Matt Wisler could potentially become available.
  • Oakland Athletics: The A’s want to trade anyone who makes any bit of money, which could put Lou Trevino in trade talks.
  • Milwaukee Brewers: Josh Hader has never not been on the trade block, so why should this winter be any different?
  • Texas Rangers: José Leclerc won’t be ready for the start of the season, but he could be a high-upside buy low candidate.
  • Baltimore Orioles: There are no clear studs in this bullpen, but Cole Slusler, Tyler Wells, and Tanner Scott all have enough talent to be intriguing mid-tier additions.
  • Miami Marlins: While Miami doesn’t look like they want to tear everything down, Dylan Floro is old enough that he’s likely not part of their long-term plans.
  • Pittsburgh Pirates: They are tearing everything down, so David Bednar and Chris Stratton should both be available at the right price.
  • Colorado Rockies: Daniel Bard would be the senitmental choice and I would not hate it, but Carlos Estévez and Robert Stephenson could brign some intrigue as well.
  • Arizona Diamondbacks: Anyone here could be available at the right price, but J.B. Wendelken could be a strong buy low candidate.

Honestly, this isn’t really as intriguing a group as I was hoping for, though there are always more relievers available than we initially think. I really like both of those Twins pitchers and they would probably be first on my call list in terms of looking for relief help. The Pirates pitchers are also both intriguing, Bednar in particular. The issue is that most of these rebuilding teams realize that they can often get more at the deadline, so particularly for the buy-low options mentioned above that can be a hurdle in trade talks.