The Red Sox have already lost Joe Kelly to the Dodgers via free agency and stand to lose Craig Kimbrel in free agency as well if they don’t make a push to re-sign him in the coming weeks. However, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski downplayed the possibility of retaining Kimbrel in an interview with Bob Nightengale of USA Today. “Craig did a great job for us,” said Dombrowski. “He’s a Hall of Fame reliever, but we have not anticipated having a large expenditure for a closer.”
Those words have to be cringe-worthy for Kimbrel and his representatives, as the seven-time All-Star reportedly entered free agency hoping to secure a six-year pact. As of late December, Kimbrel’s camp had dropped the price tag a bit but was still seeking a deal along the lines of the five-year pacts scored by Aroldis Chapman ($86MM) and Kenley Jansen ($80MM) two offseasons ago. As I noted at the time of that report, though, Kimbrel is only three months younger than Chapman and eight months younger than Jansen — meaning he’s over a year older now than were the other two hurlers at the time they signed.
Looking beyond the impact of Dombrowski’s comments on Kimbrel, however, it’s perhaps alarming for Sox fans to hear the team’s top decision-maker suggest that there may not be a bullpen splash of note. Ryan Brasier, Matt Barnes and Heath Hembree are currently in line for work at the back of the Boston ’pen, and that trio can’t exactly fill fans or the team with confidence.
While Brasier looked sensational as an out-of-the-blue reclamation project in 2018 and Barnes has emerged as a quality setup piece over the past two seasons, the overall bullpen is lacking in experience. Brandon Workman has been solid over the past two seasons but in a smallish sample of 81 innings. Tyler Thornburg was tendered a contract after a pair of injury-ruined campaigns, while lefty Brian Johnson has been steady but unspectacular.
It should be noted, of course, that Dombrowski’s comments certainly don’t indicate that the Sox won’t be making bullpen additions of any kind. But a splash for Kimbrel seems unlikely in the wake of such a public declaration, and second-tier names like Adam Ottavino could also prove steep depending on Dombrowski’s definition of “large expenditure.” It’s worth noting that over at Roster Resource, Jason Martinez projects Boston’s current luxury tax payroll to be at a hefty $239.7MM. Even accounting for a bit of wiggle room, that doesn’t leave Boston with much room if the team hopes to remain south of the top luxury tax penalization bracket.
Of course, there’s also no real reason that the Red Sox should need to remain below that threshold unless ownership makes the curious decision to mandate doing so. The Sox are entering their final season of control over Chris Sale and Xander Bogaerts, and they could see J.D. Martinez opt out of his contract next winter as well. There’s every reason for Boston to put the pedal to the proverbial metal in this instance, even if doing so means taking a hit in the draft for a second consecutive season. (The collective bargaining agreement stipulates that exceeding the luxury threshold by more than $40MM will drop a team’s top pick in the following year’s draft by 10 spots in addition to a 45 percent luxury tax on any dollars over $246MM.)
Perhaps the Sox will find an intriguing option on the trade market or make a shrewd investment or two in the lower tiers of the free-agent market for relievers once the market dries up a bit, but it’s nevertheless puzzling that a team that is so heavily invested in every other area of the roster isn’t taking a more aggressive approach when striving to replace its two most prominent relievers. Of course, it’s also possible that Dombrowski’s comments not only reflect some real hesitation, but also represent an effort to shore up his leverage in negotiations with potential signees.