The Boston Red Sox‘s neighboring American League East rival New York Yankees stole headlines this offseason with the addition of flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman, crafting a three-headed monster in the bullpen alongside Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances. While the Bronx is now home to possibly the most feared relief pitching pool in baseball, the Red Sox have quietly built a strong core as well.
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In roughly a one month span this winter, Boston traded for 4x All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel and rising setup man Carson Smith. The two additions join Koji Uehara in the Red Sox’s pen. Because of New York’s recent moves, the trio in Boston has been somewhat forgotten but has the potential to be dazzling.
Last season, Red Sox relievers ranked last in the league in multiple categories with a 4.64 FIP, 1.37 HR/9 and a -1.7 WAR. But gone are the likes of Alexi Ogando and Craig Breslow, who combined for 107 inadequate appearances. Boston has reshaped its relief efforts, although questions remain up in the air.
Going into the final year of a two-year, $18M deal, Uehara will turn 41 on Opening Night. It’s easy to believe this could be the end of the road for the Japanese veteran and most certainly his last season calling Fenway home, assuming the right-hander doesn’t post 2013-like numbers (1.09 ERA, 0.57 WHIP) to warrant a return. Last season, Uehara had a tough month of May in 2015 with his FIP rising to 4.58, but steadily improved throughout the summer before a ball struck his right wrist, ending his season on August 7.
Uehara will now take a backseat to Kimbrel, similar to 2012 when Uehara served as Joe Nathan’s setup man. Yes, he’s old and coming off injury, but projections have Uehara maintaining a sub-3.00 ERA in 65 appearances, according to FanGraphs.
Speaking of Kimbrel, the Alabama native will be one of two elite closers transitioning to the American League, with the other being Chapman, of course. Kimbrel will never be the same pitcher who had five consecutive seasons with a FIP below 2.00, especially in a league with a DH, a division full of power and less favorable park factors. Even in the friendly Petco Park in 2015, Kimbrel totaled a 2.73 ERA at home with four homers allowed.
But the numbers don’t do justice to how Kimbrel settled in with the Padres. His ERA jumped above 4.00 in his first two months in San Diego, setting off the panic meter. However, Kimbrel held opposing batters to a .153 BAA monthly from that point forward, finishing with a familiar 1.73 ERA in the second half. The BoSox are banking on Kimbrel to build upon that success.
Boston parted ways with starter Wade Miley in December, but with an emphasis on strengthening its bullpen. The Red Sox received a great return in Smith, along with 27-year-old starter Roenis Elias. With the struggles of Fernando Rodney growing large, Smith shined in Seattle’s closer role beginning in June of last season, earning five saves with only two earned runs allowed in the month.
Even at 26, Smith made 70 appearances for Seattle in his first full big league season. Again, park factors will lower his numbers with a departure from Safeco Field, but the Red Sox finally have a second reliable backend reliever who will pair with Uehara.
Boston’s projected bullpen looks like this:
RHP C. Kimbrel (Closer)
RHP K. Uehara
RHP C. Smith
LHP R. Ross
RHP J. Tazawa
LHP T. Layne
RHP S. Wright
The only position battle could be Wright vs. the likes of Anthony Varvaro, whom the Red Sox signed to a minor league deal and is recovering from a torn flexor tendon. Or, possibly Matt Barnes, the team’s 2011 first-rounder who struggled in 2015 (5.44 ERA).
Ross and Layne have both proven to be durable guys in relief duty, while the Red Sox are expecting a major rebound season from Tazawa, whose strikeout rate trended downward to 22.7 percent last year.
The Boston Red Sox are going for it from a pitching standpoint, because, I haven’t even mentioned David Price yet. Despite the concern of a strong AL East stockpiled with offense, the Red Sox have assembled arguably the second-best bullpen in Major League Baseball.