In this first portion of the offseason coming in before the lockout and subsequent transaction freeze, the focus around the Boston Red Sox roster has largely been in the rotation and the outfield. They signed three veteran starters to join the depth chart among starting pitchers, and the trade of Hunter Renfroe also opened up a plethora of opportunities to make changes in the outfield and shore up the lineup. Throw in some Trevor Story rumors to boost the talk around the infield as well, and those have been the main areas of conversation around the team.
That’s all fair and places where the team can reasonably upgrade, but it has served to cover up the area perhaps in the most need of an overhaul, which is in the bullpen. Now, part of that is just how the market has moved, as the starting pitching market in particular heated up before the lockout and teams basically had to make decisions on that front whether they wanted to or not. The talent pool in relief is not as deep, nor did it move as quickly, so it kind of got moved to the back burner for everyone.
For the Red Sox specifically, though, this is clearly an area that needs help. Things felt shaky even during the team’s improbable run into the ALCS, and with Garrett Whitlock seemingly working towards a starting role next season, or at least as depth in that area, the true late-inning arms are basically Matt Barnes, Josh Taylor, and that’s about it. It’s pretty clear to me at least that they need more back there, and that’s where Ryan Tepera comes in.
Now, this is not going to be the most exciting name, but there aren’t a whole lot of big names out in the free agent pool. Raisel Iglesias would have been a great target in my view, especially if they weren’t planning on going after a qualifying offer position player or starter (which they still may), but he’s going back to the Angels and is off the board. Kenley Jansen is the other big-name reliever, but it’s not clear he’s going to leave L.A. So if we take those two off the board, that leaves Tepera as arguably the next best option.
At first blush, as I alluded to, it’s underwhelming. Right now it’s probably safe to say that Tepera is most known for accidentally appearing on an MVP ballot after the 2020 season. That’s a very funny story, but it does overshadow the fact that he’s been a very good reliever the last two seasons. Clearly he should not have gotten an MVP vote in that 2020 season, but he was really good! And he followed it up with another strong campaign in 2021.
Over these past two seasons, Tepera has appeared in 86 games totaling 82 innings, pitching to a 3.07 ERA with a 2.88 FIP. He’s been really strong in every facet you’re looking at in a big-league reliever, striking out about 32 percent of his opponents while walking nine percent, and he’s also excelled in limiting hard contact. And while it’s true that a lot of this production has come against National League lineups, one, a late-inning reliever isn’t facing a whole lot of pitchers, and two, he was traded to the White Sox for the 2021 stretch run and was as good as he’s been at any other point during this two-year run.
Now, Tepera didn’t just start pitching in 2020, and we shouldn’t just completely ignore his career prior to that point. Red Sox fans may remember him from his Toronto days — he spent the first five years of his career through 2019 with the Blue Jays — and he was solid, but not really in a way that stands out. He relied more on soft contact than whiffs. He still induces fairly weak contact now, but he’s started to lean more heavily on his cutter/slider, and with elite results.
Baseball Savant said he he threw his slider 45 percent of the time in 2021, and his cutter 44 percent of the time in 2020. Both offerings induced whiffs on more than half of swings after that rate. My guess is that slider which Savant refers to is actually a cutter based on movement metrics for the pitch compared to his slider in the past, but either way it has been an elite pitch and has totally transformed the way he pitches. It seems he’s actually taken some velocity off of the pitch, perhaps to separate it more from his other pitch, the fastball. Whatever the reason, it’s clearly worked.
Making this move would likely not remove all doubt from Boston’s ninth inning situation, and this wouldn’t be a similar kind of move to when they traded for Craig Kimbrel in the Dave Dombrowski era. In that move, the Red Sox acquired a guy who was certain to be their closer. With Tepera, he could serve in that role, or he could simply join the late-inning depth, whether that means leaving the door open for another bigger move or for a Matt Barnes bounce back.
But it’s that flexibility that is key here. As I said, I would have liked to see the Red Sox go after Iglesias and lock down an elite late-inning arm. Iglesias is off the table, but if they wanted to try and swing a big trade for a reliever, Tepera wouldn’t make that impossible in the way perhaps signing Jansen would. In fact, it wouldn’t preclude the team from targeting Jansen himself. FanGraphs readers predicted a one-year, $4 million deal for the righty, and while I think it will probably be a bit more expensive than that, the prediction furthers the point that this commitment would not be the kind to hang up any other potential move.
It seems clear to me, especially if Whitlock isn’t going to be pencilled in as a late-inning arm, that the Red Sox need a bunch of help in the bullpen. No one move is going to move the needle in any significant way. But Tepera would be a big first step, a pitcher who has pitched well in the AL East before and in the last two seasons has been among the better relievers in the game. Being able to get that kind of pitcher on a deal that would allow them to do anything else after as well should be on their to-do list.