The Red Sox and Marlins swapped relievers Monday afternoon, with righty Matt Barnes dealt to Miami for southpaw Richard Bleier. Boston is also reportedly sending a little more than $5.5MM in cash in the deal to make the transaction nearly cash-neutral.
Barnes, 32, was designated for assignment by the Red Sox last week following the completion of a one-year, $7MM agreement with outfielder Adam Duvall. He served as Boston’s primary closer in 2021, earning a team-leading 24 saves. The 2021 campaign, however, was something of a tale of two seasons for Barnes. He dominated to the tune of a 2.25 ERA and a 42% strikeout rate through Aug. 4. Barnes was impressive enough that the Sox inked him to a two-year, $18.75MM extension in early July.
Over the final two months of the 2022 season, however, Barnes not only struggled but melted down in catastrophic fashion. He pitched just 10 2/3 innings from Aug. 5 onward, yielding a dozen runs on 17 hits and nine walks with 16 strikeouts along the way. It was a calamitous end to a what had begun as one of the best seasons among all Major League relievers.
Barnes hoped to right the ship in 2022 but promptly lost the closer’s job early in the year when he stumbled to a 7.94 ERA through the end of May. The right-hander was always going to be much lower among the team’s high-leverage considerations in 2023, following the December additions of Kenley Jansen and Chris Martin — a pair of moves that was in large part necessitated by Barnes’ struggles.
Nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out that Barnes finished on a high note that likely intrigued Miami and other clubs. He was on the injured list from early June through early August due to shoulder inflammation, and upon returning, he looked much more like the Barnes of old. Beginning on Aug. 4 — the same point at which he began to struggle a year prior — Barnes pitched 22 2/3 innings of 1.59 ERA ball and picked up four saves. His 21.1% strikeout rate was half that of his dominant 2021 form, but it was still an encouraging note on which to end the season.
Barnes might eventually get a fresh chance to carve out some save opportunities in Miami, though Dylan Floro is the current projected frontrunner for that gig. Floro worked to a 3.02 ERA across 53 2/3 innings with the Marlins in 2022, and he has successfully converted 25 save attempts over the last two years. Barnes tallied only eight saves in 2022 and finished with a 4.31 ERA in 39 2/3 frames. He’ll add quite a bit more bat-missing potential to a team that ranked 13th among MLB clubs with a 24% strikeout rate from its relief corps in 2022, though the downside is obvious.
Bleier, meanwhile, can fill the Sox’s need for left-handed bullpen help, even as he enters his age-36 season. The veteran southpaw has registered a 3.09 ERA in 125 1/3 innings since the beginning of 2020, and he’s held left-handed batters to a .225/.260/.313 slash line since he first reached the major leagues with the Yankees in 2016. Boston traded lefty Josh Taylor to the Royals in exchange for Adalberto Mondesi, sent veteran Jake Diekman (signed through 2023) to the White Sox at last year’s trade deadline and lost Darwinzon Hernandez to the Orioles via waivers earlier this offseason — all of which had thinned out the team’s left-handed depth in the ’pen.
They’ll get some quality left-handed innings out of Bleier, although despite his strong track record there are some red flags of note. The soft-tossing southpaw has never missed many bats, but last year’s 14.4% strikeout rate was his lowest since 2019. Bleier has, in the past, offset his lack of whiffs with enormous ground-ball rates. However, while last year’s 52.5% mark was strong relative to the league-average, it was nowhere close to the 63.5% career mark he carried into the 2022 season. Bleier has also regularly avoided hard contact, but last year’s 89.6 mph exit velocity and 40.8% hard-hit rate were both his worst showings since the aforementioned 2016 debut.
Barnes will make $7.5MM in 2023 and is due at least a $2.25MM buyout on a 2024 club option valued at $8MM. Bleier is due $3.25MM for the upcoming season and has a $3.75MM club option with a $250K buyout for next year. Barnes is guaranteed $9.75MM from here on out while Bleier will make at least $3.75MM. The Sox are covering the bulk of that $6MM gap with the $5.5MM+ cash consideration.
The Sox will save a minuscule amount of money and bring in a middle reliever with a solid overall track record and some particularly encouraging numbers against fellow lefties — even if Bleier comes with some potential areas of concern. That he can be controlled through 2024 via that affordable $3.75MM option is icing on the cake.
As for the Marlins, they’ll add more late-inning upside to their bullpen with this swap at almost no additional cost. Fans may bristle at shipping out the reliever with better surface-level numbers for what amounts to a Barnes reclamation project, but the Fish are willing to gamble on the younger, harder-throwing Barnes in hopes of unlocking a high-leverage reliever who can be controlled affordably through the 2024 season via that $8MM option. And, if Barnes is indeed able to round back into form, he’ll give Miami an interesting arm to put on the market this summer if they’re decisively out of postseason contention.
Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic first reported the Marlins were acquiring Barnes. Craig Mish of SportsGrid reported that Boston was acquiring Bleier in return. Jordan McPherson of the Herald was first to relay that Miami was receiving cash considerations, which Mish pegged in the $5MM range. Chris Coitllo of MassLive was first to report the cash involved was a little above $5.5MM.