Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve examined the free agent market for both right field and starting pitching, while identifying potential solutions for the Red Sox in 2012. In most of the cases, the players I’ve identified have been short-term options, and that’s a trend unlikely to change with this list. Unfortunately, this year’s free agent crop doesn’t exactly fit the needs of the Red Sox over the long-term. The big position player prizes this year are Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. While they’re both tremendous players, Adrian Gonzalez‘s presence at first base makes it incredibly unlikely the Red Sox would put in serious bids for their services.
The other big prize was supposed to be lefty ace C.C. Sabathia, who was expected to opt out of the remaining four years $92M on his current contract to test the free agent market. Rather than opt out, he chose to accept an extension with the Yankees that will keep him in New York through 2016 (with a vesting option for 2017). Now, the biggest free agent starting pitcher is C.J. Wilson. While Wilson’s a very good pitcher, he’s hardly an ace one drools over. Plus, he’ll likely be grossly overpaid given the weak market; thus making him cost prohibitive.
Despite the glut of current and one-time closers eligible for free agency, the reliever market appears to be pretty weak this year with incumbent closer Jonathan Papelbon heading the class. It’s long been public knowledge that it’s Papelbon’s goal to not only break the bank, but also set the new salary bar for closers. While the Red Sox will likely try to bring him back, I can’t see them extending him an offer that would exceed Mariano Rivera‘s average annual salary of $15M. Given the Red Sox penchant for being loathe to overpay chronically overvalued relievers, the highest I can see the Red Sox offering Papelbon is a three year deal around $36M. If he passes, which seems likely considering he’s reportedly seeking a 3/$45M deal, the team will look elsewhere to find a solution. This could mean either installing Daniel Bard as the closer or bringing in someone via free agency. Either way, they’ll need to bring in another high leverage reliever to fill the vacated spot.
Here are a few pitchers the Red Sox may kick the tires on to fill either the closer role or the set-up role.
Heath Bell – While Bell has been one of the best closers in baseball for the past three years, his peripherals took an unexepected downturn last season. He saw sharp drops in his strikeout (30.0% in 2010 to 19.9% in 2011) and swinging strike (10.6% to 8.3%) rates, while experiencing large increases in his line drive (17.9% to 21.3%) and contact (73.6% to 81.8%). With only one season of data, it’s impossible to determine if Bell’s 2011 season was a fluke, or the establishment of a new performance baseline. If this is a new performance baseline, it’s unlikely he’d be able to maintain the tidy 2.44 ERA he produced last season within the expansive confines of Petco National Park; especially if he moves to the big, bad AL East. Good news is that he maintained his velocity across the board, so he could’ve been off mechanically by just a touch. Given his track record and the number of GMs that worship at the alter of the save, he’ll still probably get a three year deal for $9-10M per season. If I’m the Red Sox, I lowball him with 2/$16M with escalators that get him up to $20M. He won’t take it, but I don’t think he’s worth the risk of giving him what he wants.
Ryan Madson – Madson finally ascended to the closer roll in Philadelphia last season. Truth be told, it probably should have happened in 2009 when Brad Lidge completely lost it. At 31, he’s not a spring chicken, but he appears to have plenty left in the tank. He has a healthy strikeout rate (25.2%), good control (career 2.86 K/BB), and eye popping whiff rates (14.8%). The best part about him is that he’s only been a closer for one year, so he’s likely to be undervalued. Considering his modest 2011 salary of $4.5M, he might be obtainable for 2-3 years at $7M per season. Provided he’s brought in to be the closer, that would probably be a solid deal.
Joe Nathan – Before undergoing Tommy John surgery in the Spring of 2010, Nathan was one of the game’s best closers. Upon returning to action this April, he struggled mightily with not only his control, but also his ability to keep the ball in the yard. As a result, the Twins removed him from the closer role temporarily, while he worked to get back on track. It seemed to work well, as he was reinstalled into the closer role by July with a fair amount of success. His 4.84 ERA won’t look pleasing to the average baseball fan, but his 3.96 xFIP indicates he was extremely unlucky with fly balls leaving the yard. His strikeout rate is lower than it had been pre-surgery, but it’s still acceptable given it’s relation to his walk rate. At 37, I’m not sure Nathan will ever return to being the championship caliber closer he once was, but he’s a classic low risk/high reward guys that could be called upon to pitch high leverage innings out of the bullpen. A one year deal at $3M plus incentives seems like a fair contract.
Jonathan Broxton – Before injuries started taking a toll on his arm midway through the 2010 season, Broxton was on his way to becoming one of the game’s premier closers. Now, he’s a question mark with an uncertain career path. When healthy, he strikes out a ton of batters, maintains good control, and keeps the ball on the ground. He throws a hard four-seamer that touches the high-90s, and a devestating slider that generates a ton of whiffs. Only two months removed from elbow surgery, he’ll be undervalued on the free agent market, and should not be considered a legitmate option at closer. Still, he’s another interesting low risk/high reward options that could bring back monsterous returns. Provided he fully recovers from his ailing elbow injury, Broxton has a good chance of regaining his dominant form.
Matt Capps - After producing two replacement level seasons in the last three, I’m going to go ahead and say Capps’s career as a closer is over. Luckily for him, the closer role is at the top of the food chain, and there are lesser roles for which he’s qualified to fill. Capps has above average control, but he generates few whiffs, and tends to pitch around the plate too much. Not surprisingly, his chronically low strikeout rate combined with a tendency to give up home runs en masse puts him in the precarious position of giving up runs at the least inopportune times. He’s due for a massive pay cut this year, and could be relegated to a minor league deal with a Spring Traning invite if he’s not careful. Unless the Red Sox can negotiate a very team friendly deal, I’d pass on him.
Octavio Dotel - Having played for 12 teams during his career, Dotel is, by definition, a journeyman. At 38 years old, he’s still an effective pitcher that can strike batters out at a high rate (28.3% in 2011) and generate a steady stream of weak pop-ups. Unfortunately, his struggles with command and homer-happy tendencies have kept him from being the dominant closer many once thought he could be come. Nevertheless, he’s a solid seventh or eighth inning guy (using conventional bullpen wisdom) that can be trusted to get outs in high leverage situations. He made $3.5M last season, and should probably be in line for another similar deal this winter. Given his ability to remain mostly healthy over the years, signing him could be a solid move for the Red Sox.
Scott Linebrink – After experiencing a string of success while in San Diego, Linebrink’s career has hit a few bumps since signing with the White Sox prior to the 2008 season. Despite being a replacement level pitcher for the last five seasons, he’ll likely be overpaid next season. Given his recent performance, he’s probably worthy of a minor league deal. Anything beyond that, and the Red Sox are wasting their money.