Red Sox News: Former closer Brandon Workman is a bargain for Chicago Cubs

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 29: Brandon Workman #44 of the Boston Red Sox in action against the New York Mets at Citi Field on July 29, 2020 in New York City.Boston Red Sox defeated the New York Mets 6-5. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 29: Brandon Workman #44 of the Boston Red Sox in action against the New York Mets at Citi Field on July 29, 2020 in New York City.Boston Red Sox defeated the New York Mets 6-5. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

Former Red Sox closer Brandon Workman signs with the Cubs

Pitchers and catchers report for spring training today and we still have little clarity on which reliever will handle the ninth inning for the Boston Red Sox. One arm we know they won’t have available in their bullpen is the right-hander who opened last season in the closer role.

The Chicago Cubs are signing Brandon Workman to a 1-year, $1 million deal that could increase to as much as $3 million with incentives.

Even in a depressed market saturated with relievers, this is a bargain for the Cubs. They are buying low on a pitcher who struggled in a very limited sample during a shortened season that saw him switch teams mid-season.

Workman spent parts of six season with the Red Sox after being selected in the second round of the 2010 draft. His career was interrupted by Tommy John surgery that kept him away from a major league mound for two seasons but when he returned in 2017, Workman quickly carved out an important role in Boston’s bullpen.

Over the next three seasons, he went 17-3 with a 2.59 ERA and 10.5 K/9 in 149 relief appearances. That includes a career-year in 2019 when he posted a 1.88 ERA and 13.1 K/9 while notching 16 saves after ascending to the closer role in the second half of the season.

His start to the 2020 season wasn’t quite as impressive with a 4.05 ERA through seven appearances but it was a tiny sample size and he converted all four of his save opportunities. A Red Sox club toiling away in last place approached the trade deadline as sellers, shipping Workman and Heath Hembree to the Philadelphia Phillies.

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Workman’s tenure in Philly was a disaster from the start. He blew the save in his first appearance and ended up converting only five of eight opportunities before the Phillies mercifully removed him from that role. He posted a brutal 6.92 ERA and the four homers he allowed in only 13 innings produced an alarmingly high 2.8 HR/9 rate.

He would have been preparing for a big payday if he hit the open market a year ago but falling apart in Philly cost him millions. One bad month doesn’t nullify the previous three years though. Nobody should expect Workman to repeat his incredible 2019 results. The .209 BABIP and 2.6 HR/FB% he produced that year weren’t sustainable based on his track record.  On the other hand, last season’s .443 BABIP and 22.2 HR/FB% are clear outliers. He’s far closer to the 2017-18 version of himself than he is to the dumpster fire Phillies fans found him to be.

Credit the Cubs for rolling the dice on Workman’s upside at a bargain price. The Red Sox were rumored to have interest in a reunion with their former closer but it must have been very mild interest if they weren’t willing to meet this low asking price.

Boston is still seeking to upgrade a bullpen that lacks a proven closer. Matt Barnes is clearly not the answer. Adam Ottavino has done it before but might be more valuable in a flexible role rather than locking him exclusively into save situations. Hirokazu Sawamura racked up some saves in Japan but the team is unlikely to place him in the closer seat out of the gate as he familiarizes himself with his new environment. Boston lacks any other options they can feel comfortable handing the role to at this point. At least Workman has done it in this city before.

It’s a bit perplexing that the Red Sox didn’t make more of an effort to bring back a pitcher who easily would have fit into their tight budget. There are a couple of factors that potentially explain why they missed out:

  1. It’s possible Workman wasn’t interested in returning after the Red Sox traded him away last year. It’s reasonable to believe he wasn’t thrilled about uprooting his life to move to Philadelphia for a month, especially with how poorly it turned out for him there. The Cubs appear poised to take a step back from the team that won their division last year but they probably won’t be sellers at the deadline. If Workman was concerned about being flipped in the middle of his one-year deal, he may have deemed Chicago as the safer choice.
  2. The Red Sox might have another move up their sleeve. Roster spots are at a premium so they can’t sign everyone they have interest in. Trevor Rosenthal, Shane Greene, Jeremy Jeffress, and Chaz Roe are among the top remaining bullpen options that Boston could conceivably prefer.

Finding undervalued assets is a page right out of Chaim Bloom’s playbook so it’s hard to believe he passed on the opportunity if there really was mutual interest.

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Our loss is Chicago’s gain. Workman isn’t an elite closer by any means, even if you’re willing to toss 2020 out the window, but he’s capable of being a solid setup arm who can step into the closer role if Craig Kimbrel continues to struggle. He’ll be an excellent value if he returns to form with his new team. If Workman’s meltdown in Philly truly was the beginning of the end for the veteran reliever, it means he’s unlikely to earn those incentives and the Cubs can cut bait at a minimal cost.