The Boston Red Sox made an early splash this offseason, acquiring high-octane closer Craig Kimbrel from the San Diego Padres to anchor their bullpen. With the team coming off a last-place finish in the American League East, and a relief corps whose 4.24 ERA ranked 13th out of 15 teams, it’s a good bet there are more moves ahead for that unit. Although fans will anxiously wait to hear if Boston lands another well-known talent, it’s always prudent to carefully consider lesser-known players. Here are a few such free agent candidates that could help the team in the late innings in 2016.
In addition to the Boston bullpen just not being very good in 2015, their general lack of velocity was a glaring issue. Of the six relievers who made at least 40 appearances, three (Craig Breslow, Koji Uehara and Tommy Layne) averaged less than 90 MPH on their fastballs for the year according to FanGraphs.com. Additionally, only Uehara averaged at least a strikeout per inning, meaning the team lacked relievers able to get out of jams while avoiding contact. Kimbrel (and his 97.3 MPH average fastball and 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings in 2015) will be a major boost but now there is an opportunity to build around him—and it doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition.
Brandon Morrow: The fifth overall pick of the 2006 draft has top-of-the rotation stuff but health problems that would make the biblical Job say “Wow.” The right-hander is now 31 and was last relatively healthy for most of a season in 2011. However, a problem may be that teams keep trying to shoehorn him into the more rigorous role of starting. While that may be dictated by his talent (44-43, 4.22 ERA and 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings in parts of nine major league seasons), his durability seems to be begging for a shift to the bullpen.
Morrow can still bring the heat (93.4 MPH average fastball in 2015) and that might play up even more on a 70-80 inning regimen a year. He pitched exclusively in relief in his first two seasons and acquitted himself well with the Seattle Mariners in that role.
Coming off yet another injury, he won’t command big bucks on his next contract. He’s even a candidate to be a spring training free agent invite. That being said, if the medicals looked alright, he’s an intriguing gamble for a team like Boston trying to reform their bullpen.
Mark Lowe: The 32-year-old lefty just completed his 10th major league seasons and seems to be getting better with age. He had the best year of his career in 2015, posting a 1.96 ERA across 57 appearances with the Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays. Despite solid career numbers of a 3.80 ERA and 303 strikeouts in 336.1 relief innings, he has been a baseball nomad, pitching for five different teams since 2012.
Lowe is actually a rare example of a southpaw who has better career numbers against right-handed hitters (.230 batting average) than lefty counterparts (.286 batting average). He was particularly lethal against righties this past year, allowing just a .196 batting average and striking out exactly a third of the 118 hitters who dared step in to face him from that side of the plate.
After injuries impacted his ability to stay on the field and his effectiveness when he was able toe a rubber in 2013-14, he bounced back in 2015. His 95.5 MPH average fastball was his best since 2011, and he also boasted a career-best walk ratio by a significant margin. He looks to be a solid, lower-priced option that could really round out a bullpen and would almost certainly be available for a contract that wouldn’t exceed two years.
Edwin Jackson: It seems that the right-hander, who will be entering his 14th major league season, has been around forever but he will still be only 32 next year.
A career starter, he was turned into a reliever last season, he signed a four-year, $52 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. Unfortunately, he went just 14-33 with a 5.58 ERA over the next two years. That abysmal performance led to a move to the bullpen this past year and a mid-season trade to the Atlanta Braves. Overall, the transition was a positive one, as he made 47 combined relief appearances while permitting a 3.07 ERA and .218 batting average to opposing hitters.
Although he shows the occasional curveball and changeup, he is essentially a fastball-slider pitcher at this point in his career. With a 93.9 MPH average fastball in 2015, he still throws as hard as ever. Having spent a handful of seasons in the American League (including three with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2006-2008) he is no stranger to the different style of play.
It’s possible a pitching-hungry team might roll the dice and offer Jackson a contract to start. However, given the bleak years he had leading up to his switch to a relief role, and the relative success he had in that new job, a safer proposition would seem to be to let him keep doing it. He’s not likely to put up star numbers but is a veteran pitcher who could help a bullpen for a modest price.
The Red Sox are off to a fast start rebuilding their group of relievers. Kimbrel will obviously be the crown jewel of that unit. However, making him as dangerous a weapon as possible is surrounding him with talent to make the later innings all the more difficult for opponents. The Sox paid dearly for their new closer, giving up four top prospects, and while they certainly have the money and young players to continue making trades and signing who they please, there are definitely more frugal options out there that could achieve similar results.
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