The Boston Red Sox got off to an aggressive start to the offseason, bringing back World Series MVP Steve Pearce on a one-year deal and following it up by rewarding postseason hero Nathan Eovaldi with a hefty four-year contract of his own.
While Boston is bringing back the large majority of its championship core, one key role remains a mystery — who’s going to be the closer in 2019?
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Craig Kimbrel, who remains a free agent after playing out the last year of his contract with the Red Sox in 2018, had a good season on paper — 2.74 ERA and 42 saves. But that was nearly a full run higher than his 1.91 career ERA, and we all remember the emotional rollercoaster that Cardiac Craig took us on during that playoff run. Boston won in spite of Kimbrel in the postseason, as the closer owned a 5.91 ERA in nine appearances, constantly allowing cushy leads to become nailbiters.
Could Kimbrel return to Boston in 2019? Possibly, and that’s something we wouldn’t have said just a month ago. Kimbrel has said he’s in search of a record-breaking six-year contract, something no team is likely going to offer at this point.
If Kimbrel is willing to settle for a significantly lesser deal, both in terms of length and annual salary, a reunion with the Red Sox isn’t totally out of the question. But even a discounted Kimbrel will still be the most expensive bullpen arm on the market, and Boston’s strapped for cash with the current payroll.
Zach Britton was perceived as the second-most coveted closer on the market and is familiar with the AL East before re-signing with the Yankees over the weekend. He has been in the division since he debuted for Baltimore in 2011, getting traded from the Orioles to the Yankees in the midst of this past season. Britton posted a 3.10 ERA in 41 appearances, going 2-0 with seven saves. But the ceiling on Britton when fully healthy is as high as any — he was in Cy Young consideration during a dominant 2016 season in which he closed out 47 games for the save and had just a 0.54 ERA.
Adam Ottavino is fresh off a tremendous season with the Rockies but also won’t come cheap. Ottavino saw plenty of work in 2018 in Colorado, pitching 75 innings, predominantly as the setup man. He owned a 2.43 ERA and could land somewhere as a closer in 2019, though the Yankees are also pursuing the righty, as well.
If the Red Sox want to try and find a more affordable option, names like Cody Allen and Justin Wilson are still on the market. Allen’s spent his entire seven-year career with the Indians, and although he earned 27 saves in 70 appearances in 2018, he also posted a career-worst 4.70 ERA (his career ERA is 2.98). He probably cost himself some money with the down season, but it also makes him a bargain if a front office like Boston’s believes he’s in line for a bounce-back year.
Wilson’s also a seven-year MLB veteran but has been more of a journeyman, making four stops thus far in his career. He most recently was the setup man for the Cubs, where he owned a 3.46 ERA in 71 appearances. Wilson has experience closing in his career though, with his last chance at a full-time role being in Detroit in 2017.
He wouldn’t be the most noteworthy signing, but also wouldn’t break the bank.
Finally, the Red Sox could simply look internally for their next closer. Joe Kelly was an option before bolting for a big deal in Los Angeles, where he’ll join the team he helped defeat in the World Series.
Ryan Brasier came out of nowhere for Boston last season to pitch in 34 games, showing decent strikeout ability along with a gritty 1.60 ERA. He was even better as the setup man in the postseason, earning five holds in nine appearances, lowering his ERA to a mere 1.04. It’s not farfetched to think president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is considering slotting Brasier into the closer role and finding some cheaper bullpen arms to help fill in the earlier innings.
Whichever route the Red Sox decide to go to sure up their bullpen, the clock is running out. It’s hard to believe Spring Training’s almost here.