Dave Dombrowski said earlier this week the Red Sox likely would need to do something “painful” in their quest to build a competitive roster for 2016. Boston’s trade for closer Craig Kimbrel doesn’t qualify as excruciating, but the talent the Red Sox relinquished in the deal is enough to make one grimace.
The Red Sox acquired Kimbrel from the San Diego Padres on Friday in exchange for minor leaguers Manuel Margot, Javier Guerra, Carlos Asuaje and Logan Allen. It’s a steep price for a reliever — yes, even one as dominant as Kimbrel — and the willingness to part with such minor league talent ultimately reflects the magnitude of Boston’s bullpen issues.
The Red Sox’s bullpen ranked 26th in Major League Baseball in ERA last season at 4.24. It also ranked 26th in WHIP (1.40), 26th in strikeouts per nine innings (7.78) and dead last in both home runs per nine innings (1.37) and FIP (4.64). The unit, which lacked power arms, was a complete train wreck, and there was very little reason to expect improvement in 2016 unless the Red Sox acted aggressively to bolster it.
Koji Uehara, who will transition to a setup role with Kimbrel entering the fray, has been awesome since joining the Red Sox before the 2013 season, but he’s turning 41 years old and is coming off a campaign cut short by a broken right wrist. Junichi Tazawa, who likely will be the seventh-inning guy with Uehara pitching the eighth, broke down late in the season for the second straight year.
Neither of those developments bodes well for a ‘pen littered with question marks elsewhere, so Kimbrel’s arrival represents a big upgrade for the Red Sox, especially since he’s a hard-thrower whose arsenal is unlike that of any other reliever on Boston’s roster.
Big enough to surrender four of the organization’s top 25 prospects? The Red Sox apparently believed so, because that’s exactly what Boston gave up to acquire the four-time All-Star.
Margot (Boston’s No. 4 prospect, according to SoxProspects.com) is a solid outfielder with excellent speed, a good bat and decent pop. He’s a candidate to someday be a leadoff hitter at the major league level. Guerra (No. 6), a shortstop, is coming off a breakout 2015 in which he was named the Red Sox’s Minor League Defensive Player of the Year in addition to showing a significant increase in power.
Allen (No. 13) and Asuaje (No. 25) carry intrigue, too. Allen posted a 0.90 ERA in 20 innings for the Gulf Coast League Red Sox and a 2.08 ERA in five innings with Single-A Lowell after being selected in the eighth round of the most recent draft. Asuaje projects as a utility player based on his versatility.
Of course, the trade stings less when you consider Kimbrel’s résumé. The right-hander leads all major league relievers in saves (224) since the beginning of his first full season with the Atlanta Braves in 2011. He ranks second among relievers in ERA (1.70), strikeouts (523), strikeouts per nine innings (14.37) and save percentage (90.7) in that span. He’s third in WHIP (0.91) and opponent batting average (.160).
Plus, neither Margot nor Guerra had a clear path to the majors, as the Red Sox already have two potential franchise cornerstones in Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts holding down center field and shortstop, respectively. The Red Sox’s farm system is so loaded they could afford to trade Margot and Guerra, who immediately become two of the Padres’ top prospects, without killing their depth.
In other words, this is a classic case of needing to give up something to get something. And while the Red Sox probably explored other trade candidates, like Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, Kimbrel evidently was the most palatable option, which makes sense given his dominance, his age (he turns 28 in May) and his contract (he’s under contract for two more years at $24 million and comes with a $13 million club option for 2018).
Now, does Kimbrel’s talent plus the Red Sox’s wealth of prospects justify the trade from Boston’s standpoint? It depends on who you ask, because the concept of trading four prospects — at least two of which have high potential — for someone who pitches 60 to 70 innings per season is a bit unsettling.
The Red Sox absolutely needed to address their bullpen with a major acquisition, though, or else they were leaving themselves vulnerable to more of the same from the unit in 2016.
And that would have been downright agonizing.
Thumbnail photo via Jake Roth/USA TODAY Sports Images
Thumbnail photo via San Diego Padres closer Craig Kimbrel