Teams are prohibited from contacting players or making any transactions until the lockout is lifted, but every front office still has a plan for areas to target once they’re allowed to again add to the roster. Last night, Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom met with media (including Alex Speier of the Boston Globe) to address the team’s priorities whenever activity resumes.
“We still would like to add more pitching,” Bloom said. “Short relievers, that’s something we have yet to address in meaningful fashion.” Bloom went on to add that the Sox would continue to be involved in the market for position players, pointing to a right-handed bat as a particular bonus in the wake of the trade that sent Hunter Renfroe to Milwaukee for Jackie Bradley Jr. and two prospects.
As Bloom suggested, Boston has yet to upgrade the late-innings mix, at least directly. The Sox’s signings of James Paxton, Michael Wacha and Rich Hill figure to have trickle-down effects on the bullpen. Wacha may be better suited as a multi-inning reliever than as a traditional starter. Even if all three pitchers assume rotation roles (Paxton is expected to miss the first few months of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery), their additions could afford the flexibility for Boston to use Garrett Whitlock and/or Tanner Houck in relief.
Whitlock spent the entire 2021 season as a reliever, eventually emerging as Boston’s top late-innings arm. The former Rule 5 draftee worked 73 1/3 innings of 1.96 ERA ball with plus strikeout, walk and ground-ball numbers. Boston has expressed openness to stretching him back out as a starting pitcher — as he’d been in the minor leagues — but their rotation additions could give them comfort in keeping Whitlock in the late-game role in which he thrived.
Houck, meanwhile, is coming off an excellent season working primarily as a starter. He pitched to a 3.68 ERA with elite strikeout and walk numbers (30% and 6.2%, respectively) across 13 rotation outings. That showing would seemingly earn him another look on the starting staff. That’s still a brief sample, though, and prior scouting reports have questioned whether the righty’s low arm angle and seldom-used third pitch might give him difficulty handling left-handed batters and/or working through a lineup multiple times.
The Red Sox would surely like to keep the rotation possibility open regarding both players, particularly Houck. And both pitchers were already options for a 2021 relief corps that was fine but unspectacular. Red Sox relievers ranked 13th this past season in ERA (3.99) and 14th in both strikeout/walk rate differential (14.8 percentage points) and SIERA (3.94). After a strong start, it became a particularly problematic unit after the All-Star Break. Not coincidentally, that came alongside a second half collapse from former closer Matt Barnes, who struggled so badly after an outstanding first few months that Boston originally left him off their postseason roster.
While the free agent market moved quickly in anticipation of the transaction freeze, there are still various options available. Kenley Jansen, Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin and old friends Joe Kelly and Collin McHugh each appeared on either MLBTR’s top 50 free agents or honorable mentions and remain unsigned. Craig Kimbrel is the highest-profile bullpen option available on the trade block, while David Bednar and Cole Sulser stand out among the affordable, under-the-radar options who look like speculative trade candidates.
Boston did make one depth addition in that regard. Speier reported yesterday (on Twitter) that the Sox were in agreement with Michael Feliz on a minor league deal that includes an invitation to big league Spring Training. It’s not clear whether that was made official before the freeze — Feliz’s transactions page at MLB.com hasn’t reflected the move — but it seems likely he’ll be in camp at some point.
Feliz appeared with four different clubs, Boston included, in 2021. He totaled just a 7.20 ERA across 20 cumulative innings, struggling with the home run ball. The 28-year-old has been an inconsistent relief arm over the past few seasons, offsetting big swing-and-miss stuff with elevated walk totals. Adding Feliz as non-roster depth won’t have much of an impact on the front office’s search for more stable bullpen help.
As for the desired right-handed batter, Bloom and his staff have the opportunity to explore multiple avenues. Acquiring Bradley could allow Boston to bump utilityman Enrique Hernández from center field — where he spent the bulk of his time in 2021 — to second base more frequently. In that case, a right-handed hitting outfielder to pair with the lefty-swinging Bradley, Alex Verdugo and Jarren Duran could fit. Alternatively, Hernández could assume that role on the grass while a more natural infielder steps in at the keystone.