Closer Craig Kimbrel and lefty Zach Britton are the most likely relievers to sign with the Red Sox this offseason.
With the 2018-19 free agency period in full swing, the market for relief pitchers may be the most interesting piece of the puzzle. From the Rays use of openers to the Boston Red Sox’s postseason rover role, the definition of a relief pitcher was turned on its head in the 2018 season.
Nevertheless, the Red Sox were one of the more traditional teams in terms of deploying their starters and relievers in 2018. They have four starters (Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez) returning from last season. Two key middle relievers will also return in Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier.
Two key players in closer Craig Kimbrel and middle reliever Joe Kelly can sign anywhere as free agents. Kimbrel has already turned down a $17.9 million qualifying offer, meaning he expects even more money on the open market.
Despite some noticeable shakiness, including a 5.91 postseason ERA, Kimbrel did not blow a save in the playoffs and only blew five opportunities in the regular season. He is still one of, if not the biggest, free agent reliever available.
However, there is talk that the Sox could go a different route in promoting a closer from within in either Barnes or Brasier.
After posting a 4.39 ERA in the regular season including an 8.31 ERA in September, Kelly surrendered just one earned run over 11.1 IP in the playoffs. He is certainly inconsistent, but the high-profile and high-intensity around his postseason appearances will put him towards the top of the market as well.
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From Adam Ottavino to Josh Tomlin and everyone in between, there are about 50 free agent relief pitchers available. Ottavino and Jeurys Familia are the safe, expensive options with proven track records. Ottavino, Familia and Joakim Soria are the three relievers available with FanGraphs WAR above 1.5 in 2018.
Among the more risky options is former Red Sox lefty Andrew Miller, who posted a 4.24 ERA over just 37 games in an injury-plagued 2018.
The most likely option here seems to be former Yankee Zach Britton, who was linked with the Red Sox at the trade deadline. His 3.10 ERA in 2018 (including a 2.88 mark after signing with the Yankees) and ability to retire both right-handed and left-handed batters make him an ideal middle reliever.
David Robertson has also been floated, but the Red Sox plans aren’t aligned with his request for a three-year deal.
Outlook and Predictions
Of course, the Red Sox could also trade for any number of relief pitchers. But since the possibilities are almost endless, I will not speculate here.
The Red Sox have a certain trust in Kimbrel and Kelly despite backlash from fans and are most likely to resign those arms before doing anything else.
Kimbrel will command a high price tag, which could lead to Boston settling for Brasier, Barnes, or a lower-demand free agent to fill the closer role. Still, Kimbrel may be worth the price after just five blown saves in 2018.
Of the available free agents, Britton seems to be the most likely signing. The Red Sox need a lefty and were linked to Britton at the trade deadline.
Look for the Red Sox to bring back Kimbrel and sign Britton as they prepare to defend the title in 2018.