Red Sox have internal closer options if Craig Kimbrel leaves in free agency

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 10: Matt Barnes #68 of the Boston Red Sox reacts in the eighth inning of a game against the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park on June 10, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JUNE 10: Matt Barnes #68 of the Boston Red Sox reacts in the eighth inning of a game against the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park on June 10, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

The Boston Red Sox will need a new closer if Craig Kimbrel signs elsewhere in free agency. Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier are their top internal candidates.

One of the more pressing issues facing the Boston Red Sox this offseason is closer Craig Kimbrel hitting free agency. The flame-throwing right-hander has been one of the game’s most dominant closers of the past decade and won’t easily be replaced if he signs elsewhere.

In the event that Kimbrel bolts for greener pastures (with the green symbolizing more money than Boston is willing to offer), the Red Sox have some internal candidates to replace him in the closer role. At least in the mind of Dave Dombrowski. The president of baseball operations told reporters on Thursday that Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier are candidates to ascend to the closer seat if Kimbrel leaves.

Barnes is coming off a career year in which he posted a 3.65 ERA and 14.0 K/9 rate. The ERA is a bit inflated by a few rough outings late in the season as he battled through a hip injury and his 2.71 FIP suggests he pitched better than his ERA indicates. Barnes finished the year strong, allowing only one run in 8 2/3 innings during the postseason.

While he has the elite strikeout upside we want from a closer, Barnes does come with one significant red flag. His 4.52 BB/9 rate was the eighth highest among AL relievers this season. Granted, Kimbrel wasn’t far behind with a 4.48 BB/9 and New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman posted a hideous 5.26 BB/9. Clearly, a high walk rate doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be a successful closer but we’d prefer if the guy protecting a late ninth-inning lead limited the free passes.

Moving him up to the closer role also diminishes part of what made Barnes so valuable to the Red Sox bullpen. He was often called upon to get out of a jam due to his ability to lock in with traffic on the bases. Barnes limited opposing hitters to a .200 average with men on bases and a .159 average with runners in scoring position. Closers usually come in to start a clean inning but Barnes is more valuable if he’s used when things get messy.

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On the plus side, Barnes was used for at least four outs on six occasions this season, allowing only one earned run in those situations. If he were to become the closer then perhaps we’d see him enter in the 8th inning to get the Red Sox out of trouble and remain in the game to finish the save in the 9th. Kimbrel has historically struggled in those situations so this may be one area where Barnes potentially provides an upgrade.

As for Brasier, he’s a bit harder to peg. The 31-year old was the surprise breakout star of the bullpen this year, posting a 1.69 ERA and 0.77 WHIP. Brasier quickly earned the trust of his manager and Alex Cora wasn’t shy about utilizing him in high-leverage situations.

Still, are we really ready for Brasier to be the closer? He had a great year but 33 2/3 innings is a fairly limited sample. We’re talking about a pitcher who hadn’t appeared in the big leagues since 2013 and had to go to Japan to reinvent himself.

Brasier’s rather pedestrian 7.8 K/9 rate isn’t up to the standards of elite closers. His walk and home run rates were cut in half from what he produced in his last major league stint. Sure, he could have improved in these areas in his time overseas but by this much?

We should expect Brasier to play an important role in the Red Sox bullpen next year but handing him the closer role next spring if Kimbrel isn’t around may be asking too much.

Of course, there’s always the chance Kimbrel re-signs. He’s expected to ask for a massive contract despite a rocky postseason. He’ll get it from somewhere but the Red Sox will put a limit on how much they’ll spend on a reliever. Boston already had MLB’s highest payroll this year and they have other roster concerns to address, plus a core of young players they need to think about locking up in the near future.

A more cost-effective option to fill the closer role could be a feasible path. The free agent market includes some appealing options, including  Adam Ottavino, David Robertson, and Tony Sipp. Giving Zach Britton a one-year “prove it” deal is a high risk, high reward option. Any of these pitchers could get the job done for a fraction of what it will cost to retain Kimbrel.

Dombrowski can’t discuss free agents publically yet so we shouldn’t read too much into his comments. He mentioned two internal options in part because he’s not allowed to mention external ones.

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What this does tell us is that he’s at least thought about his fallback plan. If Kimbrel bolts and the Red Sox fail to bring in an experienced closer, we now know who Dombrowski’s top choices are to be promoted to the role. If nothing else, it reveals how the team feels about these two relievers as integral parts of the bullpen moving forward.