It’s now been two months, and my opinion of Boston’s bullpen has not changed. At the start of the season, I felt that they were a shut-down lefty shy of being a real plus for the team, and with Carson Smith now done for the season, it has become even more evident that the team could use another dominating arm. Craig Kimbrel and Koji Ueahara have both under-performed to this point, and while I have confidence that Kimbrel will turn it around, Koji’s age and durability should definitely be a concern. Junichi Tazawa has faded down the stretch each of the last two seasons with heavy usage, and names like Robbie Ross Jr., Tommy Layne, Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree, Noe Ramirez, and now Clay Buchholz do not instill the amount of confidence needed by a playoff contending team. Barnes and Hembree have both been very good, but it is still risky to rely on them in big roles, which was demonstrated by Hembree’s 8th inning implosion last Sunday.
A playoff team has to trust its bullpen, and I am not sure that the current configuration fits the bill. While the Red Sox currently rank 10th in bullpen ERA in the MLB, they are also tied for 20th with 5 other teams in terms of bullpen losses with 9. While wins and losses may not be the greatest indicator of a starter’s performance, they are more telling in terms of relief. In relief, you have the advantage of not being in line for the loss if you come in while already down in the game; however, if you come in with your team tied or ahead, and you give up the lead, then you are in line for loss. Simply put, 9 bullpen losses means that the Red Sox have lost 9 games because of their bullpen’s inability to hold the tie or the lead. Overall the bullpen is 7-9; the defending World Series Champion Kansas City Royals’ bullpen is 12-2. So, while I still believe that the most pressing need for the 2016 Red Sox remains the starting rotation (which I will do a similar exercise with in the coming weeks), there are still other areas to improve. In short, I feel that the Red Sox need one more reliable reliever before the team can be confident in what they have.
In order to upgrade the pen, here are a slew of pitchers who I feel may be possible targets. It is unlikely that all of them will be made available, and even less likely that the asking price will be reasonable in the case of some, but they are all guys that I believe Dombrowski needs to be asking about.
HIGH QUALITY, LONG TERM SOLUTIONS
The guys at the top of this list are young and/or come with multiple years of team control. They have at least a decent track record of dominant relief work, and would likely be fixes in the short as well as the long term. Be warned though, as a trade for one of these arms could potentially involve moving prospects of a higher quality than would be desired given the price that was already paid for Kimbrel and the need to acquire a starter. Furthermore, the Astros set a fairly steep price for acquiring young, controllable releivers after giving up five prospects, including Vincent Velasquez and Mark Appel, to pry Ken Giles from the Phillies over the winter. Generally, none of these arms would be valued as highly as Giles (especially Neris), but that trade still gives leverage to the team that is selling. Player’s are listed by projected cost, from highest to lowest.
Arodys Vizcaino, 25, RHP, ATL
2016 Stats: 22.2 IP, 33 SO, 4.71 K/BB, 1.59 ERA, 1.71 FIP, 6/7 Saves
Contract: $897.5K (2016), Arb2 (2017), Arb3 (2018)
The 25-year old Vizcaino has followed up a tremendous 2015, in which he pitched 33.2 innings and finished with a 1.60 ERA, with an even better 2016. Relying on a fastball that averages 98 mph, Vizcaino has greatly improved both his strikeout rate (13.10 K/9) and his ground-ball rate (56.4%) over the past year. Now, with the Braves in last place as expected, they could very well make Vizcaino available while his value is high.
Jeremy Jeffress, 28, RHP, MIL
2016 Stats: 24.2 IP, 17 SO, 3.40 K/BB, 2.55 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 13/14 Saves
Contract: $519.1K (2016), Arb1 (2017), Arb2 (2018), Arb3 (2019)
Jeffress has quietly been one of the more reliable relievers over the past three seasons while playing in Milwaukee, posting ERA’s of 2.81, 2.65, and 2.55 from 2014 to 2016 respectively (124.2 IP). At the age of 28, his improved production over recent years can be directly attributed to significant improvement in command. Though he holds a career 3.73 BB/9, his rate the last three seasons have been 2.81, 2.91, and now 1.82. Furthermore, he profiles as an extreme ground-ball pitcher, compiling a career ground ball rate of 57.2%, ahead of guys like Luke Gregerson and Mark Melancon. Adding four years of Jeffress to the back of Boston’s bullpen would go a long way towards improving the staff as a whole.
Hector Neris, 26, RHP, PHI
2016 Stats: 28.2 IP, 38 SO, 3.80 K/BB, 2.20 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 12 Holds
Contract: $515K (2016), Min (2017), Min (2018), Arb1 (2019), Arb2 (2020), Arb3 (2021)
Neris is certainly not the same caliber as the other names on this list thanks to a very short track record; but, coming with five more seasons of team control, he warants inclusion on this list. This season, Neris has been exceptional, holding righties to a microscopic .281 OPS. Lefties have found some success, but he is still holding them to just a .235 batting average. While Neris is more of a flyball pitcher (41.7% FB in 2015), which doesn’t typically fit well in Fenway Park, he has also pitched to a 16.0% infield flyball rate, 5% above league average. I won’t go into details about why infield flyball rate matters, if you are interested then you can check out Neil Weinberg’s article on FanGraphs found here, but generally, infield fly balls are the most sure types of outs other than a strikeout. Neris is not as proven as the rest, but the ability to produce is there.
QUALITY ARMS THAT FIT THE NEED
This is the list of players that I would most like to see the Red Sox make a run at. These names come with varying track records and levels of reliability, as well as contracts that will cost a little more over the next two to three years. That being said, they all have the ability to dominate, and have showed that ability in the past. They may cost a significany amount in trade as well, but not quite as much as the upper-echelon of arms that have more years of team control at a lower projected salary. A trade of this type would probably require moving two or three prospects with decent upside, but would not require moving some of Boston’s top assets, such as Moncada, Benintendi or Devers. I have listed them in order from highest to lowest projected cost.
Will Smith, 26, LHP, MIL
*2015 Stats: 63.1 IP, 91 SO, 3.79 K/BB, 2.70 ERA, 2.47 FIP, 20 Holds
Contract: $1.475m (2016), Arb2 (2017), Arb3 (2018)
Smith is in this category, as opposed to the top-tier, for a couple of reasons. First, coming off of an injury, there is not currently any 2016 sample from which to judge Smith’s performance, making it risky for a contending team to immediately count on him to produce. This leads to the second point; the Brewers may be hesitant to move Smith before he has a chance to pitch a few outings and prove that he is still the guy who put up a 2.70 ERA with 12.93 K/9 in 2015. As a result of not wanting to sell low, the asking price for Smith is likely to be just as high as it will be in a month from now, but with a bit more risk involved for the buying team. If Smith proves to be the same pitcher he was a year ago, then his name moves up to the above category. That being said, Smith is exactly the type of lefty reliever that the Red Sox’s bullpen needs.
* Smith has not pitched yet in 2016.
Ryan Madson, 35, RHP, OAK
2016 Stats: 23.1 IP, 17 SO, 2.13 K/BB, 2.31 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 12/14 Saves
Contract: $6.66m (2016), $7.66m (2017), $7.67m (2018)
Ryan Madson is the oldest pitcher on this list in terms of age, but with that age comes a track record of success. While he has scuffled so far this season and has more of a significant contract for a reliever, he boasts a career 3.42 ERA, 135 Holds, and a 48.0% GB rate in 716.2 career innings. Furthermore, those numbers would be even better if it weren’t for a 2006 season that saw him pitch to a 5.69 ERA in 134.1 IP (he made 17 starts that year). Based on his peripherals, Madson’s ERA may climb a bit in the remaining months of the season and may not be closer material. In Boston however, he would be counted on as the third or fouth option in the pen, a similar role to the one he pitched in 2015 with the Royals.
Jake McGee, 29, LHP, COL
2016 Stats: 19.2 IP, 14 SO, 2.33 K/BB, 3.66 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 14/16 Saves
Contract: $4.8m (2016), Arb4 (2017)
The Jake McGee in Colorado has not been the same as the one who dominated while with the Rays the previous two seasons. This is likely the result of his strikeout rate, which sits at 6.41 K/9 compared to a career rate of 10.73 K/9. His walk rates are up this year as well, which could be another cause for concern. That being said, if his struggles can be attributed to his recent injuries as opposed to command and velocity issues (he has seen a drop of about 1 mph in velocity since this point last year), then he is still the rear lefty who excels at getting out batters from both sides of the plate. He is more of a fly ball pitcher, however his track record pitching in AL East ballparks is a positive one, so that should not be a cause for concern. If Colorado falters and decides to sell, then McGee should be one of the first players available.
Fernando Abad, 30, LHP, MIN
2016 Stats: 19.1 IP, 18 SO, 3.60 K/BB, 0.93 ERA, 2.03 FIP, 4 Holds
Contract: $1.25m (2016), Arb3 (2017)
Fernando Abad is a unique case on this list. After two good seasons with the Nationals and Athletics in 2013 and 2014, Abad took a step back in 2015. This season though, Abad has been lights out. Having become more of a lefty specialist, he is holding hitters to a .080 AVG this season. While right-handed batters are hitting .296 off of him, it appears that he may be running into some bad luck off of them, as they are making week contact and only slugging .318 off of him. Furthermore, in his career, Abad has typically been pretty even in his performance against batters from each side of the plate. He may seem like a risky option given the inconsistent nature of has yearly ERA and pitching splits, but taking a closer look at his numbers, I feel that Abad may have figured it out this season. In 2016, he has a GB rate of 54.9%, a significant improvement over his career rate of 40.5%. This is not something that has happened by accident; in previous years, Abad moved his pitches around in the strike zone in terms of top-to-bottom. Specifically, both his four-seam fastball and his change-up had hovered around the middle of the zone at times. This season, he has consistently stayed in the bottom half of the strike zone with four of his five pitches, the one up in the zone being the cutter, which he has only thrown 10 times all season. In other words, Abad has become a ground ball pitcher by keeping the ball down in the zone, and this is evident in his performance.
The two names on this list, both out of Arizona, would provide immediate short-term relief help rather than several years of control. Even though the Diamondbacks were expected to contend this season, they will need to make some tough choices in the next couple of months, as they have already fallen 10.5 games back of the Giants at 23-32 in the NL West. With two relief pitchers who’s values are likely at a peak, it would be wise to get something for one or both of them before they take off in free agency at the end of the season. The cost wouldn’t be nearly as high as acquiring the more controllable arms, and for a team looking to go all in, it makes sense for the Red Sox to move their next-tier assets in order to improve their bullpen.
Daniel Hudson, RHP, ARZ
Contract: $2.7m (2016)
Brad Ziegler, RHP, ARZ
Contract: $5.5m (2016)
Below are some other names to be on the lookout for. These players wouldn’t be “sexy” additions, but they would be able to fill varying rolls in the bullpen.
Andrew Chafin, LHP, ARZ
Joe Smith, RHP, LAA
Jose Alvarez, LHP, LAA
Boone Logan, LHP, COL
Fernando Rodriguez, RHP, OAK
Jeanmar Gomez, RHP, PHI
David Hernandez, RHP, PHI
References: http://www.fangraphs.com/, http://www.brooksbaseball.net/