Red Sox Free Agent Target: Right-handed reliever Steve Cishek

DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 22: Steve Cishek #41 of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the Detroit Tigers during the sixth inning at Comerica Park on August 22, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. The Cubs defeated the Tigers 8-2. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 22: Steve Cishek #41 of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the Detroit Tigers during the sixth inning at Comerica Park on August 22, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. The Cubs defeated the Tigers 8-2. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images) /

The Boston Red Sox could use a bullpen upgrade and right-hander Steve Cishek could be an affordable solution to be found in free agency.

The Boston Red Sox bullpen rated in the middle of the pack last season. While that’s not ideal for a team expected to contend, it’s far from the dumpster fire many made them out to be and they showed late-season improvement once they settled upon a clear hierarchy. That being said, they still need an upgrade to bolster the back end of their bullpen and free agency is where they may find it.

We know that the Red Sox are operating under a tight budget but there’s no need for them to splurge on an expensive closer. Brandon Workman thrived in that role when he was finally given the opportunity and should be a capable option to handle the ninth inning. Boston needs to focus on patching up the bridge that leads to their closer and former Chicago Cubs setup man Steve Cishek could provide a proven commodity to lean on late in games.

MLB Trade Rumors ranks Cishek No. 36 on their list of the top free agents and they project him to sign a two-year, $10 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks. While the Red Sox aren’t mentioned as a potential alternative, he would fill a need and the price would fall in their range if they find ways to cut costs elsewhere in order to upgrade the pitching staff.

Cishek has a strong track record with a career 2.69 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 9.5 K/9. He hasn’t been utilized as a team’s primary closer for a few years but he does own 132 career saves, including 25 for the Seattle Mariners in 2016 and a career-high 39 for the Miami Marlins in 2014. The 33-year old won’t command a closer’s salary but he’s a decent fallback option if Workman were to stumble or miss time due to injury.

The right-hander posted a 2.95 ERA in 64 innings for the Cubs this year and notched seven saves while temporarily sitting in the closer seat.

Cishek uses a sidearm delivery that gives opponents a different look, forcing hitters to switch gears after facing the power arms that teams load their bullpen with. He’s not an overpowering pitcher with a fastball velocity that has barely averaged over 90 mph in the last few years, per FanGraphs. His success comes from a high spin rate that induces weak contact. Cishek’s 84.5 average exit velocity tied for fifth-best in the majors and his 25.9 Hard Hit percentage ranked ninth, per Baseball Savant.

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One potential concern is that Chishek’s strikeout and walk rates are trending in the wrong direction. His 8.0 K/9 was his lowest since 2015 and a sharp dropoff from his 10.0 K/9 the previous year. His swinging-strike rate also fell by two percent from last year’s career-high 11.3 percent. A 9.3 SwSt% isn’t terrible though and he’s lived in that range with success in previous seasons. Plus, Chishek doesn’t need to rely on racking up strikeouts when he’s allowing soft contact with an above-average ground ball rate of 50 percent.

His rising walk rate is more problematic. Chishek’s 4.1 BB/9 was his highest since 2015, possibly the result of his percentage of pitches in the zone falling below 40 percent for the first time in his career in conjunction with his declining swinging-strike rate. It could be an outlier but loss of control is a concern for any aging pitcher and something to keep in mind when considering a multi-year deal.

The control issues were most notable in the right-hander’s splits. There wasn’t much of a difference in the batting average that Cishek allowed to hitters from either side of the plate but he walked lefties at a much higher rate. He held right-handed hitters to a .285 OBP but that jumped to a .358 OBP against lefties.

It would be best to avoid using Cishek against hitters with the platoon advantage but he can still be very useful when utilized strategically. The Red Sox bullpen has limited southpaw options but they have plenty of relievers who fared well against lefties regardless of which arm they throw with. That makes it easy enough to get the most out of Cishek without exposing his weaknesses.

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Boston’s brass has their work cut out for them to dip below the luxury tax line but we can assume they intend to do so while leaving enough in the budget to upgrade the bullpen. If they carve out enough to afford to pay a reliever about $5 million next season, Cishek should be on their radar.