Sport Why didn’t the Red Sox target relief pitchers last winter?

21:21  30 july  2018
21:21  30 july  2018 Source:   bostonglobe.com

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Steve Cishek has a 2.05 ERA this year while holding hitters to a .198 average and .621 OPS.© David Banks/Getty Images Steve Cishek has a 2.05 ERA this year while holding hitters to a .198 average and .621 OPS. As days dwindle into hours leading up to Tuesday’s trade deadline, the Red Sox’ focus remains both familiar and consistent: Just as was the case last July 31, when the Red Sox landed righthander Addison Reed from the Mets for three minor league relievers, and the previous July 31, when the team landed lefty Fernando Abad, the Sox are scouring the market in hopes of a bullpen upgrade.

The “will they” part of the equation is almost a foregone conclusion. The Sox are motivated to improve their relief corps, and the market remains deep in rental players who will be sold off for modest prospect returns by out-of-contention teams.

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Yet in all likelihood, the Sox will be picking from a second tier of talent. Top-shelf rentals Zach Britton (Yankees) and Jeurys Familia (A’s) already are off the market. The Sox lacked the prospect depth to get in the mix on controllable bullpen options such as Brad Hand and Ryan Pressly.

There are other potentially valuable contributors still available. Marlins righthander Brad Ziegler (a Red Sox target, per Jon Heyman) makes a lot of sense as a rental; he has a 0.64 ERA with an opponents’ line of .157/.257/.236 in his last 28 outings, and for the year, he has gotten groundballs on 75 percent of all balls in play, the highest rate in the majors. Rangers lefty Jake Diekman could also fit as a rental, though the extremity of his reverse splits (.196/.292/.309 vs. righties, .273/.429/.364 vs. lefties) could give some pause. Other names will surface, as deals will get done on July 31 once sellers become motivated to sell.

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Nonetheless, there is a good likelihood that whatever addition the Red Sox make will be of the complementary sort rather than a wipeout late-innings option. And as that reality becomes clearer, a question will hover in the background: Was this scramble to upgrade the bullpen avoidable?

It’s slightly less than a 100 percent lock, but the Red Sox anticipate going past the highest tier of the luxury tax threshold of $237 million – meaning that they’re essentially resigned to incurring the penalty (not only a sky-high tax rate on money spent over that threshold, but also a 10-pick penalty for their top draft pick) for doing so.

From the moment the Red Sox signed J.D. Martinez to a five-year, $110 million deal, they knew there was a considerable risk of exceeding that threshold by the end of the year. For that matter, they knew of such risks before they signed Martinez. The team likewise knew entering the year that its bullpen – last year’s group, minus Reed and Abad, plus the possibility of a year-long contribution from Carson Smith and a contribution for part of the year from Tyler Thornburg – stood a strong chance of needing an in-season upgrade.

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As such, it’s worth asking whether the Red Sox were too passive in using the winter as an opportunity to upgrade their relief corps. How different a position might they be in had they targeted setup help this winter instead of doing so at the trade deadline, at a time when the state of their farm system represents a constraint?

Lefthander Tony Watson remained available until late-February. He landed with the Giants on an inexpensive three-year, $7 million deal. In 46 2/3 innings for San Francisco, he’s been outstanding, posting a 2.12 ERA with a 9.1 strikeouts and 1.9 walks per nine innings. Lefties have a .496 OPS against him. He would have changed the conversation about whether the Red Sox needed a lefty.

Falmouth native Steve Cishek, a submariner who had a 2.01 ERA for the Mariners and Rays last year, has a 2.05 ERA this year while holding hitters to a .198 average and .621 OPS, offering the Cubs solid return to date on their two-year, $13 million investment. If he’d been signed, the Red Sox would have a very different look to shut down opposing righties.

Of course, the Sox might still be in the trade market had they signed someone this winter. The Cubs, after all, signed Cishek and Brandon Morrow; both have been excellent this year (though Morrow is now injured), but the Cubs are nonetheless in the market for more relief help. The Rockies signed Wade Davis, Jake McGee, and Bryan Shaw; they still just made a move to add Seunghwan Oh from the Blue Jays. It’s also worth noting that many relievers who signed this offseason have struggled.

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Nonetheless, the winter represented a time when the Red Sox were on a relatively level playing field – one in which money was the defining asset – to add just about any reliever they wanted. They passed on the opportunity to deepen their bullpen then, instead opting for a wait-and-see approach with their returning inventory. And now, as a result, they’re in a position where they’ve been constrained to make the same deals as their AL rivals due to the state of their prospect pool.

That still might work out for the Sox. It would be surprising if they didn’t add someone before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline. Moreover, Thornburg has been very impressive in his last four outings (retired all 11 batters, 5 strikeouts). There’s a chance that the team can get the struggling Joe Kelly back on track. And, of course, the team could lean on a starter out of the bullpen in October.

Still, if the Sox find themselves in an uphill late-innings battle in October, their chief regret likely should stem from what they did (or did not) do over the offseason, rather than what transpired leading up to the trade deadline.

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