Monday, November 16, 2015

Breaking Down Boston's Big Trade

Kimbrel helps the Red Sox, but did they give up too much to get him? (Sports on Earth)
Dave Dombrowski got the ball rolling on what figures to be a busy offseason for the Boston Red Sox, trading four prospects to the San Diego Padres for All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel.

As a Red Sox fan, I feel very conflicted about this deal. When the trade was first announced Friday I was vehemently against it (four prospects for a closer? What were they thinking??), but after giving it some thought this weekend I don't hate it. I definitely don't love it, though, which is why I want to examine both sides of the coin.

Why it's a good trade for Boston:

So much of the blame for Boston's last place finish fell on their starting rotation that it was easy to overlook how terrible their bullpen was last year. It wasn't just bad; it was one of the worst. Red Sox relievers ranked last in FIP and fifth from the bottom in ERA last year.  One might think they struggled because they were overworked, that they had to pitch more frequently because Sox starters got shelled so often, but that wasn't the case. In fact, Boston's bullpen pitched fewer innings than average.

The reason Red Sox relievers stunk was because they couldn't miss bats. Boston had the majors' fifth-lowest K/9 rate, which reflected the dearth of power arms on their roster. The strikeout is an essential weapon for any reliever, as it's the best way of getting out of jams and avoiding late-inning meltdowns. This is especially true in Fenway Park, where any ball hit in play can spell trouble.

In Kimbrel, the Sox are getting one of the nastiest flamethrowers in the game. He's been the best reliever in baseball since debuting in 2010, leading all firemen in saves, FIP, and xFIP during that time. He also has the second-best strikeout rate in baseball over that span, trailing only Aroldis Chapman (who was linked to the Red Sox last week).

Kimbrel will also solidify the back of Boston's bullpen. Current closer Koji Uehara, while still dominant, will be 41 in April. Compounding his age is his Clay Buchholz-like tendency to get injured, as he did last year when he suffered a season-ending wrist fracture in early August.

What's more, Uehara will be a free agent at season's end, whereas Kimbrel is under team control for three more years. Given his age, it's unlikely that Uehara will still be pitching by the time Kimbrel hits the market, making the latter more of a long-term solution. More importantly, Kimbrel is 13 years younger than Uehara and has never spent a day on the Disabled List. If they both stay healthy, Boston's going to have one of the best bullpen duos in baseball next year.

And for those worried about how Kimbrel will adjust to the American League, fear not. Kimbrel has had great success against the Junior Circuit throughout his career, posting a 1.44 ERA against AL teams, which is actually better than his 1.65 mark versus NL competition.

Lastly, none of the four prospects Boston gave up appeared to have much of a future with the team. The best players sent to San Diego in the deal--center fielder Manuel Margot and shortstop Javier Guerra--were both blocked by Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, who figure to be franchise cornerstones for years to come (unless Dombrowski decides to trade them, too). Carlos Asuaje struggled at Double-A last year, batting just .251/.334/.378, and is also blocked at second base by Dustin Pedroia, who's signed through 2021. Last but not least is Logan Allen, who just graduated high school. Scouts like him and he pitched well across his eight minor league starts this year, but it's much too soon to predict his future. In any case, all were unlikely to crack the major league roster next year.

Boston needs to be aggressive after back-to-back last place finishes, and this move signals they're serious about contending again in 2016. Fans would have rather seen them address their starting pitching first, but it doesn't matter when you fix your issues so long as they all get fixed. This move is only the first of many, and it's one the Red Sox wouldn't have made if they weren't going to add more pieces later.

As for the prospects, well, I'm not crying over any of them. Boston boasts the best farm system in baseball, so they certainly have trade chips to spare. Dombrowski's predecessors seemed over-protective of their minor leaguers at times (can you imagine Ben Cherington making this deal?), but I'll never argue against exchanging kids for proven talent. Boston could afford to pony up the prospects and can afford to pay Kimbrel, so what's the problem? He's as good as it gets, and he makes the Sox better in the short run without harming their long-term plans.
Kimbrel might never be as good as he was with the Braves (Fox Sports)
Why it's a bad trade for Boston:

For whatever reason, managers and front offices are seduced by star closers and their ability to rack up saves. Like saves, the men who compile them are overrated. They pitch roughly 60 innings per year--usually one inning a few times a week--and the majority of those innings come when their team's already leading in the ninth inning. Teams convert 95 percent of ninth-inning leads anyways, meaning they pitch only when victory is all but assured. As such, the advantage of having a quote-unquote shutdown closer is marginal at best, meaning closers are not worth the lavish contracts they command

The Red Sox are paying a steep price for Kimbrel, both in terms of dollars and who they sacrificed to get him. He'll earn $11.25 million next year and $13.25 million the year after that, more than Wade Miley and nearly as much as  Pedroia. Kimbrel won't be nearly as valuable as either of those guys, meaning he'll be responsible for a disproportionate percent of the team's payroll. You could get a decent starting pitcher or a solid regular for that price.

And if that weren't bad enough, Boston also surrendered four prospects to San Diego in the trade. While the Red Sox farm system is deep, four prospects is a lot no matter how you slice it. Definitely too many for a guy who throws 60 innings a year. Dombrowski should have used those prospects to land a starter, something the Red Sox desperately need. Dombrowski says they'll attempt to do so via free agency, but that almost guarantees they'll be stuck with a massive contract they'll regret someday. Better to trade for a starter and pay for relievers, who can often be had on the cheap.

Another reason for concern is that Kimbrel's coming off the worst year of his career. Granted, it was still a terrific season by any standard, but it's still discouraging that he pitched significantly worse despite moving to the best pitcher's park in baseball. Pitchers peak early, meaning we may have already seen Kimbrel's best. Though he'll only be 28 next year, his decline phase could be well underway. His ERA and FIP have both increased in three consecutive seasons, while his strikeout totals have fallen every year since 2011.

And while Kimbrel's proven he can handle American League opponents, who knows how he'll fare in Fenway Park--a much better place for hitters than his previous homes in Atlanta and San Diego. Just because he's pitched well in the National League doesn't mean he'll replicate his success in the American League, either. The Red Sox have whiffed badly on the last few big-name NL relievers they've acquired, from Mark Melancon to Joel Hanrahan to Edward Mujica. You can add Andrew Bailey, Bobby Jenks, and Dan Wheeler to the list as well, even though they came from American League teams.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, this looks like a great trade for the Padres, who traded five players and took on B.J. (excuse me, Melvin) Upton's albatross contract to acquire Kimbrel last April (now that was a terrible trade). Pricey closers are expensive luxuries rebuilding teams don't need (just ask the Phillies), making Kimbrel expendable. More importantly, the swap helps replenish San Diego's farm system, which A.J. Preller gutted to acquire all those big names last winter. Netting two top-100 prospects and a couple of lottery tickets is a fantastic haul, not to mention a big first step towards recovery.

So who won? San Diego doesn't lose anything by giving up Kimbrel, so you can't really say they lost even if none of their new prospects pan out (at least they saved themselves some money). But for this trade to work in Boston, the Red Sox have to be good. Kimbrel's only useful if they have late-inning leads for him to protect. If they don't, well, it won't be long before Kimbrel finds himself on the trading block again.

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