Red Sox's top priorities? Improving 'pen, retaining Xander

November 9th, 2022

Of all the issues that ailed the Red Sox in 2022 -- and there were quite a few -- the biggest was the struggles of the bullpen.

In the American League, only the Royals (4.66) had a bullpen ERA higher than the 4.59 mark posted by the Red Sox. Boston converted just 39 of 67 save opportunities.

Perhaps a set closer could remedy that situation. Manager Alex Cora has been forced to do his share of mixing and matching in the late innings the last couple of years.

“Ultimately, I think our preference would be to get to a point where we do have someone set in the role,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said from the GM Meetings in Las Vegas on Tuesday. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be someone who has a long resume doing it.

“To me, that comes from having that person be at the forefront of a really good bullpen. That was obviously an area where we struggled in ’22 and something we really need to address. Having a dominant closer doesn’t help you enough if you can’t get to that person. I think most likely we will wind up with some structure out there, but I think that’s just going to fall out of having a number of really good options.”

The top internal option to close for the Sox next season is Tanner Houck, who got his feet wet in that role before being shut down in August with a back injury that required season-ending surgery.

Matt Barnes, who was an All-Star in that role in the first half of 2021, only to slump mightily for months after that, had a resurgent end to ’22. The righty could also get a chance in the ninth inning again, depending on how the offseason shakes out for Bloom.

The Red Sox are sure to be active in seeking bullpen help, both via trade and free agency. It remains to be seen if Bloom will acquire an established closer.

With Edwin Díaz in agreement to return to the Mets on a five-year, $102 million deal, according to a source, Kenley Jansen is the biggest name available via free agency.

The 35-year-old righty and three-time All-Star led the National League with 41 saves for the Braves in 2022.

Former Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel is also up for free agency, but he has been inconsistent since his departure from Boston four years ago.

Here are some other topics Bloom spoke about on Tuesday:

Xander and the opt-out
A day after shortstop Xander Bogaerts officially opted out of the final three years of his contract with the Red Sox, Bloom expressed determination to find a path to keep the 30-year-old veteran in a Boston uniform.

“We didn’t want to see him opt out but we totally respect his right to do it. He chose a few years ago to defer that right to free agency, which is one of the biggest rights that players have,” said Bloom. “But he also gave himself the right to explore it at this point in time. We expected that he might want to do that. We respect his decision to do that. We want him here and we’re going to stay engaged with him.”

While retaining Bogaerts remains a top focus, Bloom realizes the importance of multitasking.

“We’re going to stay engaged and we’re also going to look into everything else we need to do to make sure we have a good club next year,” said Bloom.

Improvement in the division
The Red Sox went a nightmarish 26-50 within their division last season, which had a lot to do with their last-place finish. With the new schedule, Boston will go from 19 games per season against AL East opponents to 13. Bloom isn’t complaining.

“Yeah, look, I don’t expect that we will have the same experience with the AL East. I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Bloom. “That said, I think for the entirety of my career, the AL East has been the best division in the sport and it’s probably never been better than it is right now, just top to bottom. We saw that take shape in ’22 and we kind of lived the short end of that stick in ’22.

“We have to be better against the division even in this new schedule format to have the type of success we want to have. Regardless of what anyone will say, if you put all the AL East teams on truth serum, I think we’re all pretty happy that we won’t be beating up on each other quite as often as we did in ’22.”