The Craig Kimbrel conversation isn’t an easy one.
The Red Sox closer has certainly exhibited his value since coming over from San Diego prior to the 2016 season. (By the way, the centerpiece of that trade from the Padres’ perspective, Manuel Margot, hasn’t exactly torn it up. In 134 games this year the outfielder is hitting .246 with a .669 OPS and seven home runs. He also has been thrown out on half of his 20 stolen base attempts.)
But the time is coming where a true commitment to Kimbrel will be needed. Free agency is two months away.
The always excellent Twitter account @RedSoxStats put up a poll Sunday asking the question regarding what the Red Sox should do when it comes to their closer. The results were telling …
There are no easy answers.
But with decisions coming on Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts and Rick Porcello, such a chunk of a change for a closer of that age might be difficult to swallow. So if the Red Sox don’t want to go down that road how would they replace Kimbrel?
There are going to be some interesting names on the free agent market. Adam Ottavino. David Robertson. Jeurys Familia. Andrew Miller. Kelvin Herrera. Sergio Romo. Zach Britton.
But perhaps the Red Sox will choose familiarity when considering a replacement (while taking a flier one of the higher-risk candidates from the free agent pool). It that’s the case remember these names: Ryan Brasier and Nathan Eovaldi.
Brasier would seem to be the leader in the clubhouse. Not only has he offered the image any team would want from their closer, but he has performed the role basically his entire professional career up until this season. There is also a cost-effectiveness that can’t be ignored.
But what about Eovaldi?
“I’ve always really been intrigued by him as a closer,” a National League scout team that might have some interest in the player recently told me. That got me thinking. Why not?
Eovaldi doesn’t have a single save to his credit, and he is eligible for free agency this offseason. But considering his stuff and repertoire, it might be a route worth going for both the team and the player. (His batting average against climbs steadily each time through the lineup.) Four years, $40 million, with the option of integrating him into the rotation if need be? Just a thought.
“Rolaids spells relief.” Remember that ad? Back in August I purchased a few packs of Rolaids in anticipation of what the Red Sox relievers would do to my stomach in October. After roughly three weeks of September baseball I’m thinking that I should have ordered a few crates…
This season is truly remarkable and unique. The Red Sox have won 103 games and lost a miniscule 48. A 55-game spread and it’s been like this for months! It’s been a truly memorable season in so many ways, enjoyable from front to back, and yet the Red Sox relief situation has been spreading ugly like a rash since Opening Day.
In May the rash was isolated to places you can hide under a tee-shirt or shorts and the weeks heading into the trade deadline represented the necessary ointment to make the problem go away. Well, the trade deadline came and went in July and then the waiver deadline came and went again in August and now that rash is spreading in a most gruesome way. Full sleeves and slacks are now required to cover it up.
The 800-pound gorilla that has been hanging around the 2018 Red Sox all season long gained an extra few hundred pounds in September. Fall has arrived and now matters are worse. What was once a need for the Red Sox rapidly turned into a hole, evolved into a flaw and has sadly devolved into a fatal flaw. The 2018 Red Sox deserve better. Solutions are needed; the good news is I have a cure and unlike Rolaids it doesn’t spell relief.
The great Dick Radatz was one of the most effective relief pitchers to ever put on a uniform. For many years “The Monster,” as he was called, could be heard on WEEI airwaves offering his very well informed opinion on baseball, the Red Sox and pitching in general. He could very frequently be heard saying the following…“Every pitcher wants to start, because your starters are your best pitchers.” Ain’t that the truth. The 2018 Red Sox have certainly proven that statement to be true this regular season.
During August in this very column I wrote the following about the Red Sox ‘relief core’… “Tryouts are unfolding before our eyes.”
Those aforementioned tryouts have not gone well, particularly of late, which leads me to my point. If the Red Sox want to avoid the seemingly inevitable failures from their cast of current late inning relievers, then simply avoid using them.
The Red Sox’ best shot to win will come on the backs of six guys: Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi and Steven Wright. Add in Craig Kimbrel for the ninth inning and occasionally for an out or two more. That’s seven guys and nobody other than these seven guys should ever see the seventh or eighth inning. Period. Note to Alex Cora: mix ’em up however you like, but these are the only guys you should trust during those oh so critical late innings of October baseball.
In the postseason when it’s late and close you need a trusted, reliable arm. A go-to. You know who figured that out? Terry Francona, when he deployed Andrew Miller in that break-glass-as-needed relief role to get the biggest outs in as many games as he could two years ago. For this current lot, I think Cora needs to do exactly that at least for the first two rounds. Now how do you do it?
Consensus would say that the Red Sox should start Chris Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello in the ALDS and I fully agree with that sentiment. Moving into the ALCS, consensus would be to potentially add a fourth starter to that mix, which would be either Rodriguez, Eovaldi or Wright, to which I wholeheartedly disagree.
The Red Sox simply don’t have the reliable bullpen arms behind these guys to make that approach successful in a long series. Between Ryan Brasier, Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes (if he returns) and Joe Kelly, I would give them exactly one batters worth of margin each. Maybe. No more than that and frankly, they’d be fortunate to be granted that much room given their recent performances. For Kelly specifically, consistency has been a season-long epidemic. You simply cannot trust a pitcher with the propensity to walk so many batters in the late innings. Walks are a death sentence and both Kelly and Barnes suffer from offering ill-timed free passes when it matters.
So the easy solution would be to roll with the three man rotation of Sale, Price and Porcello while having all hands of Rodriguez, Eovaldi and Wright on deck ready to aid in each and every game. I would argue that Brian Johnson should be put into that group as well, because at a minimum he has at least shown the ability to overcome adversity literally from at-bat to at-bat on a consistent basis. That specific quality in Johnson’s makeup lends itself well to the mentality required for succeeding in postseason and he’s been consistent with it, which is more than you can say about anyone not named Kimbrel in that bullpen.
So as the Red Sox ready themselves for October baseball, they would be wise to follow the old adage offered by the all-time great reliever, Dick Radatz, which was essentially to trust your starters. The good news for the Red Sox is they have seven starters they can use creatively to help avoid the nightly issues with their current stable. It’s the only way I can see to avoid these seventh and eighth inning bullpen giveaways, because in the unforgiving times of October baseball, history has proven those flaws to be fatal.
The 2018 MLB regular season ends Sunday, Sept. 30, meaning the postseason is now roughly two weeks away. However, there are still plenty of postseason races that have to be decided between now and then.
With that in mind, here is an update on the current American League postseason picture. Here’s the SportsLine Projection System and here’s what the AL postseason field would look like if the season ended today (Click here for the National League playoff picture):
Be sure to check out SportsLine’s daily pick sheet for insight about every game.
AL East leader: Red Sox (103-47)
- Games remaining: 12 (6 Home, 6 Away)
- Remaining opponents’ winning percentage: .555
- SportsLine’s AL pennant odds: 32 percent
- SportsLine’s World Series odds: 18.7 percent
The Sox have all but locked up the top seed throughout the postseason, and they could clinch that honor by mid-week. At this writing, their magic number in the AL East is a mere two, so they’re very close to clinching the division title for a third straight year. Right now the focus is on keeping core contributors like Chris Sale and Mookie Betts healthy and fresh in anticipation of a deep playoff run. At the moment, SportsLine projects the Sox to finish with 110 wins.
AL Central champion: Indians (83-66)
- Games remaining: 13 (6 Home, 7 Away)
- Remaining opponents’ winning percentage: .457
- SportsLine’s AL pennant odds: 22.9 percent
- SportsLine’s World Series odds: 11.4 percent
The Indians have already clinched the otherwise lowly AL Central, and they have no shot at improving their playoff seed, which means they’re all but locked in against the champion Astros in the ALDS. Even in the unlikely event that the Indians and Astros wound up with the same record, the Astros hold the tiebreaker by virtue of their winning the regular-season series.
AL West leader: Astros (94-55)
- Games remaining: 13 (6 Home, 7 Away)
- Remaining opponents’ winning percentage: .466
- SportsLine’s AL pennant odds: 25.8 percent
- SportsLine’s World Series odds: 14.1 percent
There’s still a slim chance the Astros can catch the Red Sox for top seed (and they hold the tiebreaker), but that’s a longshot. They’re also just six wins from notching back-to-back 100-win seasons for the first time in franchise history. The pesky A’s are still very much alive in the AL West, but the Astros, thanks to their roster strength and 4 1/2-game lead, are the heavy favorites to hang on. Also to Houston’s benefit is that they won’t face the A’s again in the regular season.
AL wild card leader: Yankees (91-58)
- Games remaining: 13 (6 Home, 7 Away)
- Remaining opponents’ winning percentage: .516
- SportsLine’s playoff odds: 99.6 percent
- SportsLine’s World Series odds: 8 percent
The Yankees’ playoff spot is pretty much a lock, but they’re just 1 1/2 games ahead of the A’s for the right to host the AL Wild Card Game. They also have a slightly tougher remaining schedule than does Oakland .This one could be a photo finish, and the last thing the Yankees want is a trip out west before the potential of an ALDS matchup with Boston back on the East Coast.
AL wild card runner-up: Athletics (90-60)
- Games remaining: 12 (6 Home, 6 Away)
- Remaining opponents’ winning percentage: .498
- SportsLine’s playoff odds: 98.9 percent
- SportsLine’s World Series odds: 2.2 percent
Barring collapse over those final 12 games, the A’s are going to the playoffs. They’re also projected for 97 wins, which would be their highest total since 2002. They’re coming up on a six-game homestand against the Angels and Twins, so Bob Melvin would obviously love to clinch that playoff berth during that span. Per SportsLine, the A’s have less than a one percent chance of catching Houston in the AL West. If the A’s and Yanks do end up in the Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium, then SportsLine sees the Yankees as 55 percent favorites. That’s pretty much in line with the generic home-field advantage in MLB.
Teams on the outside looking in
- Rays: 82-66 (1.4 percent postseason odds per SportsLine)
- Mariners: 82-67 (<1.0 percent postseason odds per SportsLine)
Obviously, the AL field is pretty much set. The Rays have been one of the baseball’s best teams in the second half, but their 4-13 start to the year really hurt them in what’s been a top-heavy AL. Taking two of three against the A’s helped their slim chances, and 10 of their remaining 14 games come against the Blue Jays and Rangers. They’ll need Oakland to collapse, though. Seattle still has three head-to-head games against the A’s remaining, but, again, Oakland’s lead is huge in light of how late it is.
The miserable Orioles are right now projected for 115 losses, which would make them the sixth team ever to reach that unfortunate benchmark. They’re also very close to locking up the top overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft. Among the eliminated teams in the AL, only the Angels have a shot at pulling off a winning season.
For all intents and purposes, Boston put New York out of its misery six weeks ago with a four-game sweep at Fenway Park.
NEW YORK — It only seems fitting the first chance for the Red Sox to clinch a third straight American League East crown comes against the Yankees.
For all intents and purposes, Boston put New York out of its misery six weeks ago with a four-game sweep at Fenway Park. The interim has seen the Red Sox continue their assault on the club’s record books and widen their lead to a season-high 11.5 games going into the Tuesday opener of their three-game series in the Bronx.
Most of the luster associated with this final Boston road trip of the season assumed there would be postseason implications, but business on that front is pretty much settled. The Red Sox hold a magic number of two in the A.L. East, the Yankees are all but assured of a wild card spot and Cleveland became the first team to capture a division title when it clinched a third straight A.L. Central on Saturday. The only drama remaining – and it’s a sideshow at best – is whether or not New York can hold off Oakland to host the wild card game and earn a trip to the A.L. Division Series.
Nathan Eovaldi takes the ball for a 1:05 p.m. first pitch, and he threw one of the punches in a combination that knocked the Yankees to the canvas on that long weekend in Boston. Hot bats, stingy pitching and what has become trademark resilience carried the Red Sox through what in hindsight was the final real chance for New York to swing the race in its favor.
Boston held a somewhat modest 5.5-game lead on Aug. 2, and a sweep in the other direction would have cut the Red Sox margin to a sliver. C.C. Sabathia wilted in just three innings on a sweltering Thursday, forcing Jonathan Holder to the mound in the fourth. The right-hander didn’t retire any of the seven men he faced, Chad Green gave up two more hits and Boston had the deciding eight-run rally in a 15-7 blowout.
Rick Porcello and Eovaldi took over from there, weaving back-to-back gems as the Red Sox secured a series win with consecutive 4-1 victories. Porcello allowed just a Miguel Andujar home run in a complete game, retiring the final 21 men he faced and requiring just 86 pitches. Eovaldi made his Boston debut a memorable one, dominating over eight scoreless innings and allowing just three hits.
Sunday night in front of a national ESPN audience was the coup de grace. The Yankees were three outs from salvaging the final game when Aroldis Chapman did his best impression of an arsonist coming out of the New York bullpen. The Red Sox scored three runs off the closer in the ninth to tie it and walked off on Holder thanks to Andrew Benintendi’s single to center in the 10th, a 5-4 stunner that felt like the final straw.
Will this still be six straight games against two teams Boston could see in October? Certainly, but there won’t be a fraction of the urgency attached. Expect Red Sox manager Alex Cora and his peers to rest starting position players, limit workloads for pitchers and make some cagey decisions when it comes to individual matchups.
That means managing workloads for some position players, with Mookie Betts battling left side soreness and Eduardo Nunez working his way back from a sore right knee. Cora will also be careful with his pitching staff, possibly restricting David Price on Wednesday and easing Matt Barnes back onto the mound at some point. These are the luxuries of handling business early, something Boston has done with clinical efficiency.
Red Sox fans of recent vintage can’t help but recall celebrating the 2004 A.L. pennant at the old Yankee Stadium across East 161st Street. Boston dug out of a 3-0 hole in the best-of-seven A.L. Championship Series, the first baseball team to overcome such a deficit. This wouldn’t approach the euphoria that came along with erasing 86 years of futility and frustration, but another Red Sox celebration in the new home of their ancient rival would be sweet nonetheless.
Bill Koch writes for the Providence Journal of GateHouse Media.
This whole thing comes with a caveat. It can go bad at any point. It did before, and it can again.
But when it comes to Chris Sale’s march toward living life as a postseason ace and putting his shoulder inflammation in the rearview mirror, the plan seems to be going swimmingly. This is the impression we had walking out of the Red Sox’ clubhouse after talking to the lefty following his three innings in the 4-3 win over the Mets Sunday. (For a complete recap of the Red Sox’ victory, click here.)
“I think at this point the first one obviously didn’t go as planned,” said Sale, referencing his one inning his last time out. “This one was a little more smooth. We’re doing three innings with an inning in the bullpen. We ramp up the first time, then the next time, and by the third one, the first postseason start, we’ll be at 100 pitches, which is where you want to be.
“I feel 100 percent. I wouldn’t be going out there if I wasn’t. This is just part of the process, building up. It’s not that I’m still injured or still hurting, it’s just you can’t sit out three weeks and go pitch nine innings.”
There is still work to be done. But Sale has time to do it.
This time out he threw 42 pitches, 20 of which were four-seam fastballs. It was a heater that averaged 94.9 mph and maxed out at 96.8 mph, not exactly the high 90’s that this guy was producing for most of his season. But, according to Sale, that was at least somewhat by design.
“Last time out, I was trying to throw every pitch as hard as I could, trying to make everything as nasty as possible and that’s not how you start games,” he said. “This time I was more in sync, there was more rhythm to it and I was more under control today.”
All things considered, there should be optimism when it comes to Sale.
This is a pitcher who is hitting late September with good stuff, good command and, most perhaps most importantly, a fraction of the workload he has been used to. Sale, who has given up one run since June 19, is sitting with 150 innings. What that does is leave him not only with gas in the tank heading into Game 1 of the postseason but enough of a buffer for another 30 innings as is often needed for any World Series run.
“I’m excited for it. It’s hard not to be,” he said of the impending postseason. “Like I’ve said a million times, this team has allowed me to do this. This would not be an easy process if we were a game or two up or a game or two back. I appreciate the fact that these guys go and put it on the line every day and win games. You saw it today. Tied up and kind of in crunch time and get a leadoff double and move the runner over, drive the runner in and that’s … We win games in many different ways. I think that’s the sign of a good team and I’m appreciative of the guys in this clubhouse.”
– With the win and a Yankees loss vs. Toronto, their magic number to win the AL East is two. The Red Sox have a season-high 11.5-game lead.
– With 12 games left to play, are two wins shy of a franchise record. Their 103 wins are their most since 1946 (104).
– Reached a season-high 56 games over .500. The only other year in which the Red Sox reached 56-or-more games over .500 was 1912 (+58).
– Their 103 wins are the most by an AL team since the Yankees in 2009 (103). The only other teams in that time with 103-plus wins have been the Cubs in 2016 (103) and Dodgers in 2017 (104). The last AL team with more wins was SEA in 2001 (116).
The arguments surrounding this year’s Most Valuable Player Award in the American League are fascinating because of the sheer volume of outstanding candidates. Even though ambiguity constantly surrounds the award’s criteria and it occasionally suffers from archaic points of view, the quality of talent under consideration is downright extraordinary. Except for Mike Trout’s annual candidacy, the ball players whose names have become regularly associated with this prestigious award come from ball clubs (Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, and Oakland Athletics) who will be actively participating in postseason baseball.
Thanks to forward thinking statistical advancements such as Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), our abilities to thoroughly study all aspects of a ball player’s contributions through new methods of evaluation have added unimaginable depth to a process that regularly suffers from noticeable flaws. Advanced metrics have become essential in the decision-making process and have positively influenced a new way of thinking, especially when it comes to defense. However, a stigma still accompanies certain positions.
*: J.D. Martinez has only played a combined 452 innings (52 games) on defense this season between right field (20 games – 172 innings) and left field (32 games – 280 innings).
Please Note: Statistics through September 16, 2018
Ever since its debut in 1973, the designated hitter has been a polarizing topic of conversation. The purists have abhorred the idea of imbalance between the American and National Leagues when it comes to another ball player supplanting a pitcher as a hitter in the offensive lineup. Over the past 45 seasons (1973-2017), the American League (97,916) has hit 9,106 more home runs than the National League (88,810) as well as outscored the Senior Circuit by 27,824 runs according to Baseball-Reference.com. Prior to the advent of Interleague play in 1997, the American League’s designated hitters produced 6,659 regular season home runs which equates to an average of 476 home runs per American League ball club (1973-1996). This statistic considers expansion franchises such as the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays in 1977 as well as the Milwaukee Brewers being an American League ball club until their departure for the National League in 1998.
Boston Red Sox’s J.D. Martinez hits the ball during a baseball game against the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park, Thursday, July 26, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
J.D. Martinez of the Boston Red Sox is having a phenomenal season by all accounts. In fact, he is challenging to become the American League’s 10th ball player (11th overall) to win the batting triple crown. Ted Williams is the only American League ball player to have won the prestigious award twice (1942 and 1947). Martinez could also become the first ball player since Mickey Mantle (1956) to not only win the American League’s batting triple crown, but also Major League Baseball’s batting triple crown.
However, winning the American League’s batting triple crown doesn’t necessarily mean you will win the Most Valuable Player Award. Williams finished second in the American League Most Valuable Player Award voting both times he had won the batting triple crown. In 1942, Williams had won both the American League and Major League Baseball’s batting triple crowns. Lou Gehrig accomplished the same feat in 1934 but finished fifth in the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award voting.
While Martinez’s name rests comfortably atop or the near the top of several offensive categories this season in the American League, you won’t find his name in the top five in terms of WAR according to Fangraphs.com (5.2) or even Baseball-Reference.com’s (5.8) calculations of the statistic. WAR is an all-inclusive statistic that includes batting, base running, and fielding. The Achilles’ heel for Martinez comes in the form of defense.
To put it in perspective, Alex Gordon of the Kansas City Royals has a 17 DRS (exceeds Gold Glove caliber) and 12.5 UZR (great defensive ability) which leads all qualified left fielders in the American League. Red Sox teammate Andrew Benintendi has a 3 DRS (approaching above average status) and 3.7 UZR (approaching above average status) over 1,002.1 innings playing left field. Another teammate and Most Valuable Player Award candidate, Mookie Betts, leads all qualified right fielders with an 18 DRS (exceeds Gold Glove caliber) and 14.3 UZR (approaching Gold Glove caliber) over 973.1 innings.
In some ways, the designated hitter has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award. Respect is rarely given to a ball player who is essentially viewed as a one-dimensional offensive threat who relies on the designated hitter position to cover up defensive liabilities. This unfair stereotype has adversely affected the likes of Edgar Martinez as he approaches his final year of eligibility on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
On occasion, a ball player’s performance as a designated hitter has successfully factored into them winning the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award. There have only been two occasions where the winner of the award had at least 220 plate appearances as a designated hitter. These feats had occurred in successive seasons (1978 and 1979) with Jim Rice of the Boston Red Sox (225 plate appearances) and Don Baylor of the California Angels (293 plate appearances). In fact, Baylor has played the most games (65) and most plate appearances (293) as a designated hitter in a season while winning the award. In total, there are only five American League Most Valuable Players who had at least 100 plate appearances as a designated hitter in the season in which they had won the award.
J.D. Martinez versus AL MVP’s With 100 Plate Appearances as DH in MVP Season
*: Statistics through September 16, 2018
J.D. Martinez’s exceptional season will obviously weigh heavily on the minds of the voters for this year’s American League Most Valuable Player Award. In truth, advanced defensive metrics will adversely affect his candidacy, especially competing with the likes of Mookie Betts, Matt Chapman, and Francisco Lindor. A lower than expected WAR and the stigma that accompanies the designated hitter position will also serve as challenges for Martinez. However, Martinez could benefit from some old school thinking when it comes to overall value to the Red Sox, effort, and strength of offensive contributions. Voters might have to answer a very difficult question involving both Betts and Martinez: if you are perceived as the most valuable ball player on the best team in baseball, shouldn’t that make you the American League’s Most Valuable Player?