By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
The seven-time All-Star closer – 14th on the all-time saves list after just nine major league seasons – was reportedly interested in a $100 million deal heading into the offseason. By last weekend, Kimbrel’s agent actually had to refute a report that the relief ace was willing to sit out the season if he didn’t receive an offer to his liking.
Dave Dombrowski seems content to let Kimbrel walk, citing economic reasons but also a sense of guarded optimism that his other relievers can pick up the slack. Following the defection of Joe Kelly – a regular season enigma who morphed into Steve Nebraska last October – and presumably Kimbrel, a Boston bullpen that was considered “thin” last year doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for the year ahead.
Sure, the 2018 World Series champions rolled to 108 wins and went 11-3 in the postseason, even as Kimbrel submitted a subpar second half and ceded high leverage innings to other options. But he’s a known quantity, and the franchise has veered sharply from uncertainty at the closer position since the bullpen-by-committee disaster of 2003.
Since Tony La Russa and Dennis Eckersley ushered in the modern era of closers more than 30 years ago, it’s been the rare occurrence that a World Series winner debuts a brand new fireman the following season.
There’s the case of the short-term rental. The 2016 Cubs were the most recent example, acquiring Aroldis Chapman for the stretch run. When Chapman bolted for New York, Chicago went out and got Wade Davis the following spring.
The 2003 Marlins transitioned from rental Ugueth Urbina to free agent signing Armando Benitez the next year.
The Marlins (and Dave Dombrowski) also presided over that unprecedented firesale following the 1997 World Series when Robb Nenn was dealt to the Giants for three uninspiring prospects. The team responded with 54 wins and their relievers (led by former Red Sox reliever Matt Mantei) pulled down a combined 24 saves.
And that begs the question: has a team ever let their closer walk, shunned the free agent and trade markets, and been successful?
The 1996 Yankees had a closer-in-waiting, so they let John Wetteland chase big bucks in Texas and flipped the job to an already-dominant 27-year old by the name of Mariano Rivera. You know him as a unanimous first ballot Hall of Famer. They didn’t take the World Series that first year, but they won plenty more with Rivera in the role.
Then, there was Duane Ward.
Ask anyone who the closer was for the late 1980’s to early 1990’s Blue Jays, and they’d likely reply “Tom Henke” – the guy with the nasty forkball and the glasses my dad wore when Reagan was president. Henke had a dominant 217 saves and 2.48 ERA for Toronto between 1985 to 1992.
But did you know Ward saved a combined 76 games during the last five years of Henke’s run? With Ward posting a 1.95 ERA during Toronto’s 1992 title campaign, the Jays let their bespectacled menace take a multi-year deal from, yes, the Rangers, and installed their 28-year old backup closer.
Ward saved 45 games in 1993, establishing a team record, and was the winning pitcher in the clinching Game 6 of that year’s World Series.
Is 28-year old Matt Barnes the next Rivera? Probably not. But is he the next Ward?
The 1993 Jays went back-to-back, something few teams are able to do. The Red Sox would obviously love that result. But Barnes, while good, hasn’t exactly merited Closer B status the last few seasons. Which is why Dombrowski keeps other names in the mix, like Japanese League import turned postseason cog Ryan Brasier. And while starters routinely close games in the postseason, we haven’t seen a team employ a true bullpen-by-committee on the long and winding road to a trophy.
One has to wonder if the Red Sox are being innovative or penny foolish. The conversation about closers has shifted in the last several years, but it’s pretty clear a bullpen can’t be managed for 162 games the same way it is in October. That’s why there’s usually a guy. And Dombrowski and manager Alex Cora seem to be waiting for someone to assume the mantle.
We all thought last year’s ‘pen was too thin to bridge the gap between Boston’s formidable starting rotation and their All-Star closer. This year, they’re starting the season without a closer at all. While history doesn’t support that approach, we’ve seen stranger things around here.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.