Red Sox Closer Role Wide Open Heading Into 2019

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LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 27: Matt Barnes #32 of the Boston Red Sox delivers during the seventh inning of game four of the 2018 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on October 27, 2018 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

With four weeks remaining until the start of the 2019 MLB season the defending World Series Champion Boston Red Sox have a conspicuous hole in the depth chart. As the roster stands right now, there is no clear cut favorite to be the 2019 closer. Let’s discuss how we got to this point, and some options. 

Craig Kimbrel and His Free Agency

2018 All-Star Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel remains a free agent with the season fast approaching. Kimbrel’s ardent pursuit of a big money, long term contract has limited his pool of potential teams. As happening across the entire MLB, teams are choosing ever-younger and cheaper options, particularly in regard to their bullpen pieces. At 30 years old, the almost certain Hall of Famer’s career certainly has more chapters to play out.

However, Kimbrel’s reliance on power over command is the reason that a long term contract which takes Kimbrel into his mid or late 30s is seen as a possible liability, in particular. As well, the Red Sox, in particular, are trying to cut back on salary. At $227 million, Boston was $22 million more than the second highest payroll and were hit the hardest by the league’s luxury tax.  

Kimbrel’s 2019 possibilities cannot be discussed with examining Kimbrel’s 2018. Performance issues were evidently creeping into Kimbrel’s play. The first example likely to come to many Red Sox fan’s minds is his 2018 postseason performance. A 5.91 ERA across nine postseason games was an unfortunate ending to his otherwise very successful season. As well, Kimbrel’s eye-popping numbers from 2017 returned to their usual, still dominant numbers for 2018.

From 2017 to 2018 the pitcher’s walk number more than doubled as he recorded 30 fewer strikeouts, bringing that number to 96. Kimbrel’s 2018 2.74 ERA (nearly double 2017), 0.99 WHIP and 2.3 WAR with 42 saves and only 5 blown saves was markedly better than any Red Sox reliever could offer. Although, Ryan Brasier did have slightly better statistics that was with only half the innings pitched of Kimbrel.

Cora’s Options for 2019

Over two months ago a Last Word on Baseball article posited that filling the closer position was really the only tweak Cora had to take care of during the offseason. The team does have a couple of possible candidates to fill Kimbrel’s shoes already in the bullpen. Matt Barnes and Ryan Braiser are the frontrunners for the job.

However, manager Alex Cora and pitching coach Dana Levangie have both offered Heath Hembree as a potential candidate. Both Barnes and Hembree had experienced workloads similar to that of Kimbrel in 2018; while Braiser’s impressive numbers in smaller samples allowed him to stand out in the bullpen.

Free agent pitchers have come and gone on the marketplace. With less than a month until opening day, the final remaining other notable bullpen piece on the market,  Tony Sipp, has been picked up by the Washington Nationals. Cora’s only two options are Kimbrel or someone already on the Red Sox roster.

Except for the increasingly unlikely resigning of Kimbrel; Red Sox fans will likely be left continuing to wonder who will be taking the mound in the ninth inning. Cora says he will not name a closer until opening day.

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