Whether it’s from players who most recently played for the Red Sox or outside options, Boston all but certainly will be looking to bolster its bullpen this winter.
Joe Kelly, Craig Kimbrel, Nathan Eovaldi and Drew Pomeranz all are free agents, with the latter two being used both as starters and relievers in 2018.
There are a slew of quality arms available on the open market, among them David Robertson and Zach Britton, both of whom last pitched for the New York Yankees. On Saturday, the New York Post’s George A. King III created a little buzz when he reported the Yankees could see both pitchers landing with Boston in 2019.
With that in mind, should the Red Sox consider one, or both pitchers?
First, let’s look at numbers. Here are the projected contracts for both pitchers (as well as the Sox’s free agent pitchers, for reference) via MLBTradeRumors.com.
— Britton: 3 years, $33 million
— Robertson: 3 years, $33 million
— Kelly: 3 years, $27 million
— Kimbrel: 4 years, $70 million
— Eovaldi: 4 years, $60 million
— Pomeranz: 1 year, $6 million
Now, let’s look at what the Red Sox would be getting if they set out for Britton or Robertson.
Britton, a two-time All-Star, served as the Baltimore Orioles’ closer from 2014 until he was traded to the Yankees at the 2018 trade deadline. He led the league in saves (47) in a stellar 2016, and has a career 7.4-to-0.6 strikeout per nine-to-home runs per nine.
Last December Britton ruptured his achilles, which impeded him from beginning his season until mid-June. That came on the heels of a strained forearm that limited him to 30 appearances in 2017.
Between the Yankees and O’s in 2018, the 30-year-old (who turns 31 this month) had a 2-0 record with a 3.10 ERA, posting seven saves. He was used more as a seventh- and eighth-inning arm with the Yankees, and sometimes was shaky at best as he tried to regain peak form — put differently, he became familiar with getting booed off the Yankees Stadium mound. In his four innings pitched in the 2018 American League Division Series, Britton allowed one run (a home run to Christian Vazquez in Game 4), on three hits with four strikeouts over three appearances.
At this juncture, giving Britton a multi-year, semi-lucrative deal is paying for the name to a degree. His velocity remains there (his fastball lived at 94.9 mph last season, per FanGraphs), and his slider helps keep the ball in the park. He’s sure to have plenty of suitors, but there is some risk in signing him, especially at what he likely will command.
Robertson, meanwhile, has been linked to the Red Sox because he owns a home in Rhode Island and reportedly would like to stay in the region (which basically means Red Sox, Yankees or Mets if we’re reading between the lines). He’s coming off a 2018 campaign when he went 8-3 with a 3.23 ERA, recording five saves while serving primarily as a high-leverage, late-inning arm.
At 33-years-old (he’ll be 34 shortly after the 2019 season starts), he has a little more mileage on his arm than Britton, but has been an absolute horse, appearing in at least 60 games in nine of his 11 seasons, and the two he appeared in sub-60 games were his first two years in the big leagues.
He has a low-90s fastball, but his devastating breaking ball is what makes him effective. His ERA has been below 3.50 in all but two seasons (the two outliers came in his first and third big league season), and in 2017 he posted a 1.84 ERA.
In other words, he’s made his career on being reliable. He has a lifetime 3.48 ERA in the postseason over 30 appearances, and while he’s been solid in most playoff outings, others he’s been knocked around (see: 2010 and 2017 ALCS).
When it comes to making the decision, here’s one question to consider: Would you rather have three years of both Robertson and Britton, or four years of Kimbrel when it will cost you roughly the same money?
There’s appeal to both pitchers. Robertson is stable, while Britton has tremendous upside and has proven to be dominant, and the Red Sox’s decision likely will come down which is more appealing if they’re choosing between the two.
The Red Sox’s bullpen often was shaky last season, but Boston benefited majorly from its relief group figuring its issues out in October. It’s probably not wise to bank on that happening again, so going after one or both of Robertson and Britton seems like it would be a smart move, especially if Kimbrel (and Kelly for that matter) sign elsewhere.