Red Sox must act quickly to lock up Matt Barnes to an extension

Red Sox closer Matt Barnes is open to a contract extension

The Boston Red Sox entered the season with legitimate questions about which reliever they could trust to handle the ninth inning but Matt Barnes has put those concerns to rest by emerging as one of the league’s elite closers.

Unfortunately, Barnes is eligible for free agency after the season. If Boston wants to avoid heading into next year with similar questions about the back of their bullpen, they would be wise to keep him off the market.

It’s an outcome that the veteran reliever at least seems open to. Barnes confirmed that he’s “absolutely” open to discussing a contract extension during the season, according to Alex Speier of The Boston Globe.

“If the Red Sox want to make an offer,” said Barnes. “I’m a firm believer that listening to information is free.”

That’s hardly an indication that he’s willing to jump at the offer but it’s worth noting that he’s willing to listen. We’ve seen players who have been extremely reluctant to consider any extension before they can test the free-agent market while others simply refuse to negotiate during the season because they don’t want the distraction of worrying about the future.

Barnes revealed that he had talks with the team during spring training about a possible extension. While they weren’t able to hammer out a deal, he described the discussion as meaningful. It sounds like the Red Sox laid the groundwork but weren’t quite able to cross the finish line.

Those talks obviously occurred prior to the breakout season that Barnes is in the midst of. He was unproven in the closer role at the time with underwhelming results in the sporadic opportunities he had been given in the past. If Boston offered a price during training camp, it almost certainly wasn’t anywhere near what the top-tier closers can command.

The window to get Barnes at a discount is slamming shut. The right-hander has increased his value by proving himself in his new role. Barnes has converted 14 of 16 saves opportunities while posting a career-best 2.73 ERA, 0.72 WHIP and 16.1 K/9.

While some may view his production as an outlier based on his solid but hardly spectacular track record and have concerns about overpaying based on a small sample size, it’s how Barnes has produced during this career-year that we should focus on.

Barnes has been far more aggressive in attacking the strike zone. His 72.6 first-pitch strike percentage is by far a career high. Getting ahead in the count early helps avoid falling into a hitter’s count and has led to a drastic reduction in walks.

Barnes has displayed notable command issues in the past with a walk rate north of 5.0 BB/9 in each of the last two seasons. He’s trimmed that to 2.4 BB/9 this year. Combined with his elite strikeout rate, Barnes is producing a career-high 6.71 K/BB that ranks ninth among major league relievers.

His career year isn’t a fluke based on Statcast’s expected statistics. Barnes rates in the top 1% of the league with a .135 XBA, .210 XSLG, .182 XWOBA, and 1.33 xERA.

The next free-agent class isn’t nearly as loaded as last winter when the market was saturated with proven closers. If Barnes continues on his current pace, a case can be made that he’ll be the most desirable reliever on the market. The Red Sox would be wise to lock him up now so that they don’t risk a bidding war later.

If Barnes were to leave after this season, the Red Sox could struggle to replace him. Adam Ottavino will also be a free-agent and nobody else on this roster has sufficient closing experience. Free agency seems unlikely to provide an upgrade and it’s far too soon to predict the trade market with any sellers currently focused on this year’s trade deadline rather than the offseason.

The Red Sox have a top-notch closer at the peak of his career and can’t afford to let that go if they intend to contend next season. By acting now, Boston might be able to convince Barnes to accept a slight discount since he’s still yet to showcase this new and improved version of himself over a full season. If they are willing to bet on Barnes being able to maintain this level of excellence with his revised approach then he could prove to be a bargain.

But the price is rising by the day. The longer they wait to lock up Barnes, the more expensive he potentially gets. There’s always some risk that he could get injured or see his performance unravel later this year but the risk of losing him to free agency is far greater if they wait.