Boston Red Sox: Leading the market on the Kimbrel trade


Here we are over a week on from the trade that sent minor league pawns to the San Diego Padres in exchange for the 9th inning king Craig Kimbrel coming to the Boston Red Sox, and we are still talking about it. Part of the reason is the lack of anything else going on with the offseason hot stove. But, mostly, I’d say it’s because of how contentious the issue was, is and undoubtedly will be, and how other teams have seemingly reacted.

The Red Sox moved quickly to plug perhaps their biggest hole and likely already made enough of a difference to their chances at contention next year. Don’t believe me? Consider this – Boston relievers of all shapes and sizes, from Koji Uehara to Jean “If Pablo Sandoval were a pitcher” Machi, converted 40 out of a potential 60 save opportunities offered to them. Imagine, if you will, that the Red Sox even had a halfway competent closer on the mound who could make 50 of those saves and boom – the postseason comes back to Fenway Park via the Wild Card.

But that’s not all. Other teams too have awoken to the importance, if not utmost importance, of a lights out bullpen. Check out the latest hot stove rumors and you’d struggle to find a team that isn’t interested in adding more quality relievers, particularly those with experience in closing the door. The Astros want them, the Tigers want them, the Dodgers want them, the Cubs want them. Even teams for whom a closer would be akin to a golden anchor on their sinking ship, à la the Atlanta Braves, want them to ride the wave and flip them for young talent in a rebuild. Speaking of cashing in, you’ve got teams like the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates suddenly interested in parting ways with their elite closers, Andrew Miller and Mark Melancon respectively, in return for what could probably have gotten you a top, front line starter not long ago. I know the dollar doesn’t go so far these days, but that’s ridiculous!

What gives? Well, as we’ve discussed before, team planning and structure isn’t exactly the most inventive thing ever. Want to build a team that wins the world series? Do basically the exact same thing as the team that last won the world series. The Kansas City Royals not only won it in 2015, they were in it in 2014 also. A remarkable achievement for a team that set a strategy around taking everything that makes baseball fun and doing the exact opposite. Flashy front line aces? Big bat, homer-hitting sluggers? Forget that. Instead let’s have a solidly average rotation propped up by the most lights out bullpen around and a hitting lineup that can reliably make contact.

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And it worked. Royals closer Wade Davis is among the best in the business, and, when thrown together with a Greg Holland or Kelvin Herrera, well, the starter really only has to survive 7 innings with a lead and it’s goodnight. The formula has worked so well it’s little surprise Boston and almost every other franchise seeking contention is desiring to replicate it. The Red Sox were surprisingly close with Uehara, but the real Royals strategy involved the double whammy of two elite closer-types in one single bullpen and only with Kimbrel has that been realised.

Rumors abounded that Boston actually wanted Cincinnati Reds elite closer Aroldis Chapman, but the deal never materialised. The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo explains that any deal was off the table when Cincinnati sought more, yes more, than what the Red Sox ultimately gave up for Kimbrel:

"“The Reds listened to Boston’s pitch for Chapman but required more than the Red Sox offered for Kimbrel, and the Sox weren’t comfortable going the extra mile for a pitcher who can become a free agent after 2016.”"

Well alrighty then. I mean, that certainly seems to invalidate the argument that it was Boston who set the bar so high for reliever prices this offseason by “overspending” on Kimbrel. On the contrary. The bar is high because clubs like the Reds and the Padres know they can get a pretty penny for a closer and that’s precisely why the Braves would aggressively pursue Darren O’Day in a rebuild season.

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Ignoring the laughable return requested by Cincinnati, it strikes me as obvious that Boston moved quickly to be ahead of the market. Knowing and predicting the popular moves was a forte of former Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein, who usually went the opposite way to maximise value. In the position of current Red Sox President of Baseball Ops, Dave Dombrowski hasn’t the luxury to build in similar vein.

The Red Sox needed an elite closer who could let Uehara drop back to the 8th inning (call it an end to Koji Savings Time, if you will) and ease the pressure further on Junichi Tazawa in the 7th. Overall, a vast improvement to the bullpen with just one trade. However, it so happens that this year highlighted the importance of shutdown pitching relief with the Royals and starter Jeremy Guthrie, owner of a 5.95 ERA on the year, as the textbook example. The New York Mets had nothing but aces, the Royals had none, yet the latter took the World Series.

The price of relievers, in particular those with closing experience, is bound to soar. Already we hear of what previously would be considered a second or third tier closer like Joakim Soria is seeking a 3-year deal for some $27 million, a hefty price by any stretch of the imagination (as an aside, it seems Kansas City is among the frontrunners for Soria, hmmm). With that in mind, Dombrowski did the right thing by going straight for Kimbrel and not wasting time. He acquired exactly what Boston, and indeed any team, covets – an elite, reliable and still young closer who will be in Fenway until at least the end of 2018.

Next: Red Sox say goodbye to Josh Rutledge and other moves

The alacrity Dombrowski displayed in dealing a group of promising young prospects stunned many, even to this day. But ultimately we simply aren’t used to such aggressiveness in the offseason. Supported his front office army, Dombrowski moved to acquire Kimbrel before the run on relievers began. Red Sox Nation should hope he shows the same readiness and prudency when it comes time to get his ace.