Red Sox, Yankees locked in a bullpen arms race


The New York Yankee’s acquisition of Aroldis Chapman signals that they are following the lead of their division rival Boston Red Sox in loading up on a dominant bullpen.

Major League Baseball is a copycat league. With the Kansas City Royals fresh off of a World Series title, it’s no surprise that a pair of AL East rivals are attempting to follow the blueprint they used of building the league’s most dominant bullpen.

The Royals rode a below-average rotation to a championship due primarily to the support they received from their top ranked bullpen, which posted a collective 2.72 ERA last season. Other teams have taken note.

The Red Sox beefed up a bullpen that ranked 12th in the league last year with a 4.24 ERA, first by acquiring closer Craig Kimbrel in a trade with the San Diego Padres and then following that up by dealing for Carson Smith from the Seattle Mariners. The team expects that they will be able to keep Koji Uehara healthier by monitoring his workload in a setup role, while the added depth in the bullpen will prevent them from wearing out Junichi Tazawa again. This should help improve their production, which combined with the contributions of those new acquisitions, is bound to turn one of the league’s worst bullpens into one of the best.

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Not to be outdone, the Yankees countered by trading for Cincinnati Reds flamethrower Aroldis Chapman, adding him to a group of relievers that already includes Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances. There had been rumors that the Yankees were shopping Miller so that Betances could ascend to the closer seat, yet they ended up going in the other direction by acquiring another power arm with experience in the 9th inning. Chapman comes with some risk due to the investigation into domestic violence allegations that could result in a suspension, but when he does join the Yankees he will help form arguably the most dominant bullpen in the league.

Only three relievers in the majors recorded at least 100 strikeouts last season and the Yankees now have all three of them. Those three were also the only relievers with a K/9 north of 14.00, while only a dozen relievers posted a K/9 of at least 11.80 last year. At least the Red Sox now have two of them.

Good luck making a comeback against this Yankees team if they make through six innings with a lead. However, after the big three in New York’s bullpen there are a lot of question marks and unproven talent, which explains why their bullpen ranked only 7th last year despite having to league’s most dominant pair of relievers.

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The back end of the Red Sox bullpen might not be quite as imposing, but it still has the potential to be great. They go at least four deep with relievers capable of shutting down opposing lineups, while we can probably throw Robbie Ross in that group as well given how reliable he was down the stretch last season.

Also consider that as great as Kimbrel (1.3 WAR in 2015) and Smith (2.3 WAR) are, who they replace is just as vital to improving this bullpen. The Red Sox have trimmed disappointments such as Jean Machi (-0.1 WAR) and Craig Brelsow (0.5 WAR) from the roster, producing an upgrade that could be worth over five wins above replacement level. Meanwhile, the Yankees have added Chapman (2.7 WAR), but also lost a valuable piece of last year’s bullpen when Justin Wilson (1.5 WAR) left for Detroit. New York added a big name, but they haven’t upgraded their bullpen quite as much as Boston has.

Next: Impact of Chapman trade on Red Sox

Loading up the bullpen is the new trend in baseball. The Red Sox and Yankees both hope that following this path will lead them back to the World Series in much the same way as it did for the Royals this year. If nothing else, this arms race to load up on relievers has helped ignite the rivalry between these divisional foes that has been dormant the last few years.