The Boston Red Sox appear hesitant to commit to Brandon Workman as their closer and expect to add to their bullpen in free agency.
The most pressing question facing the Boston Red Sox entering the 2019 season was who would fill the closer role vacated by the departure of Craig Kimbrel. It took some trial and error as Boston’s bullpen sputtered out of the gate but a clear hierarchy was eventually established with Brandon Workman at the top. Despite thriving in the role when he was finally given the opportunity, the Red Sox are hesitant to commit to Workman as their closer for next season.
Workman didn’t cement himself in the closer role until the second half of the season but managed to tally 16 saves. His 1.88 ERA ranked sixth among major-league relievers, he was 11th with a 36.4 K% and 27th with a 1.03 WHIP.
The one concern was Workman’s inflated walk rate which reached a career-high 5.7 BB/9. He wasn’t exactly stingy with walks in the past with a 3.3 BB/9 entering last season but this drastic rise appears to be an outlier.
It’s difficult for hitters to take advantage of those walks when Workman is holding them to a major-league best .121 batting average, posting an elite strikeout rate and avoiding the long ball. Workman allowed only one home run in 71 2/3 innings for an almost unfathomable 0.1 HR/9. He doesn’t allow a ton of fly balls to begin with but his 2.3 HR/FB rate easily led major league relievers.
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Even if the significant leaps that Workman made compared to his solid yet unspectacular track record suggest he’s due for some negative regression, he’s still established himself as a top-tier option at a volatile position.
Chaim Bloom spoke with the media this week about his offseason agenda, which may include adding a reliever. He stated that bullpen depth is always tested so we should expect the Red Sox to explore reliever options in free agency. While Bloom acknowledged the tremendous job that Workman did this year, his comments leave the door open for a more proven option to supplant him in the closer role.
"“He did a hell of a job,” said Bloom when asked about Workman, per MassLive’s Chris Cotillo. “He proved more than capable of handling that role. Don’t want to get ahead of ourselves in determining 2020.”"
That last sentence has us pumping the brakes on Workman retaining the closer role. While Bloom believes the right-hander is capable of doing the job, there may be better options available and he’s not ready to anoint anyone as the closer until he completes the roster.
Their desire to cut payroll this offseason will probably prevent the Red Sox from splurging on a closer in free agency. Will Smith is the consensus top option and projected to make about $14 million per season on a multi-year deal. The next best options – Will Harris, Daniel Hudson, Craig Stammen, Steve Cishek – have limited experience as a closer. While any of those relievers would be a solid addition to the bullpen, they wouldn’t necessarily challenge Workman for the ninth-inning role.
The outlook could change depending on other moves the club makes. If they manage to unload one of their expensive veterans, the Red Sox could suddenly find themselves with plenty of room in the budget to chase Smith. Bloom could also explore options to trade for a closer without breaking the bank.
Bloom’s comments weren’t exactly a vote of confidence in Workman but that doesn’t necessarily mean they intend to find an upgrade for the closer role. He’s simply keeping his options open. Bloom has a lot of his plate and he doesn’t want to limit himself by placing his priorities in any particular order.
The Red Sox plan to bolster their bullpen and whether or not that means Workman will have competition depends on how the rest of Bloom’s agenda pans out. Workman has proven himself as a worthy option but if Bloom brings in a superior reliever to take over the ninth inning, bumping Workman back to a setup role, Boston’s bullpen will only get stronger.