You Gotta Relieve

We know the Red Sox need a third baseman. I know it, you know it, even the Red Sox know it, probably. The release of Pablo Sandoval and the fact that all potential replacements from the roster are variations on the utility infielder theme both point toward the Red Sox swinging some sort of deal for a third baseman between now and the July 31 trade deadline. Less certain though is whether or not Red Sox President Dave Dombrowski will make other trades to try and improve the team for the stretch run. The bullpen is no more than second to the hole at third base, a hole which if not addressed threatens to swallow up shortstop and potentially third base coach Brian Butterfield. The pen is less of a matter-gobbling black hole, but another good reliever never hurts. The issues are ‘who’ and ‘how much.’

The Red Sox have a closer in Craig Kimbrel, and they have some set-up-y men in Matt Barnes, Brandon Workman, if manager John Farrell chooses to push him that far, and Joe Kelly, should he return to health. You could make the argument that Kelly’s horrendous strikeout rate, Barnes’ propensity to walk hitters, and the fact that Workman hasn’t worked for going on four seasons makes them all ill-suited for a set-up role, and that argument, should you make it, might not be wrong.

It should be pointed out however that the Red Sox bullpen, cobbled together though it may be, has been one of the best pens in all of baseball. To date they’ve been ninth in strikeout percentage, fifth lowest in walk percentage, and fourth lowest in home runs per nine innings. And yet…well, yeah, I know. It’s not like this bullpen has a bunch of big names after Kimbrel that you’d feel comfortable giving the ball to in a close playoff game. So let’s explore the trade market for relievers together, shall we?

We should probably start by saying that the Red Sox missed the boat on two relievers who would’ve been hugely helpful in Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson, both formerly of the White Sox. The Yankees gave up big prospects for them so there wasn’t much Boston could do given the state of their minor league system, but it’s unfortunate that those guys are going to actively work against the Red Sox instead of help them. Anyway. Moving on.

There are more than a few relievers on the market who could help the Red Sox immediately and immensely. Names like Justin Wilson, Pat Neshek, Addison Reed, Raisel Iglesias, and Felipe Rivero all come to mind. The issue, as always, is how much will they cost. The thing about relievers is that today’s excellent shut-down reliever is tomorrow’s over-priced homer-prone mess, and tomorrow’s over-priced homer-prone mess is the day after tomorrow’s Tommy John surgery recipient or DFA candidate. So it’s dicy. The Yankees went all in on Robertson, who due to make about $20 million between now and the end of next season, and Kahnle, who has never pitched this well before and is throwing sliders at a rate that could make your arm explode if I told you what the rate is. That’s not to say those guys won’t help the Yankees now, in the playoffs, or next season. They will, or could, or might. But they’re relievers. So you can never say for sure. The only thing for sure is what you just paid to get them.

One of the relievers who figures to be dealt before the 31st is Justin Wilson. Wilson is the Tigers closer and the Tigers just figured out they’re not going anywhere and teams that aren’t going anywhere need what they can get for a closer at the deadline far more than they need a closer. So Wilson is available. He’s 29, left-handed, and has seen a big jump in his strikeout rate this season, so… yeah. Relievers. Anyway, his walk rate is pretty high too, almost to Barnes-ian levels. That and as a closer he figures to be expensive. But he’s under team control through next season and he’d be an upgrade for Boston even with those issues, so perhaps there’s a deal for Dombrowski to make with his former team.

Another name that has been bandied about the interwebs is that of Pat Neshek. Neshek is on the Phillies, so you know he’s available and despite his age (36, almost 37) he’s been incredibly good. His strikeout rate is up and his walk rate is down and he’s been equally effective against both left-handed hitters and righties this season despite his odd style of throwing. He is a fly ball pitcher so that might work against him in Fenway Park, and his stats are helped by the fact that the ball has stayed in the park maybe a bit more than his actual skill would dictate this season. Still, the overall package is a shutdown reliever. The Phillies will look to cash in their one trade chip, but given that Neshek is old, doesn’t throw hard, and will be a free agent at the end of the year, perhaps there’s a non-crazy price that’s worth paying here.

Another reliever available is Addison Reed, a fastball/slider pitcher with a good strikeout rate and a minuscule walk rate who is toiling away for the Mets. Like Neshek he’s a fly ball pitcher without platoon splits on a one year deal who would look great in an eighth inning role for the Red Sox. So would Brad Hand of the Padres. Hand would be an incredible get by Dombrowski as his strikeout and walk numbers have been fantastic this season (32.1 percent and 6.8 percent, respectively). He’s not a free agent until 2020 either so the Red Sox would have him for a number of years, though as a reliever, who knows how valuable that would actually be. The point would be to put him into the eighth inning role in 2017 and watch the wins roll in, which they might actually do. The problem would be the cost, because even if we look at those years of control and go “eh?” the Padres are still gonna charge you for them. That plus the fact that Hand is damn good and therefore a bunch of teams are going to want him will likely push him outside the bounds of what the Red Sox are willing to pay. Reed may wind up being more the Red Sox speed. Or he may prove too expensive as well. It’s the deadline and we’re talking about relievers so things tend to get crazy.

The overall point is that though the Yankees got better with Kahnle and Robertson, there are other relievers out there who are just as good, or as good as Robertson anyway, and would help the Red Sox. A pen with Kimbrel, and either Reed, Neshek, or Hand would be fantastic, especially if Workman proves to be worth something, especially especially if Barnes’ new motion pays dividends, especially especially especially if Carson Smith ever makes it back healthy before the year closes out. You don’t have to squint too hard to see how you might feel much better about the Boston bullpen in one of those scenarios.

All of which is to say the Red Sox have the makings of a solid bullpen. They don’t absolutely need to go out and get someone else. They have guys and those guys have been surprisingly effective to date. But these are relievers. So the more you have, the better off you are. Because really, who the heck knows.

Photo by Eric Hartline – USA TODAY Sports

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