Boston Red Sox looking for reliever to replace Koji Uehara, Brad Ziegler

One of the top priorities for the Boston Red Sox will be adding to a bullpen that seems likely to lose a couple of relievers that have played vital roles.

The Boston Red Sox have a closer capable of locking down the ninth inning. Now they are looking to add a reliever they can trust to get the ball to Craig Kimbrel.

Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski spoke with the media at the GM meetings on Tuesday, indicating that one of the top items on his agenda this offseason will be acquiring a setup man to work the eighth inning.

Boston’s bullpen finished fourth in the American League with a collective 4.00 ERA this season, a vast improvement from the previous year when they finished next to last. If we’ve learned anything from the past two postseasons it’s that a shutdown bullpen is a key ingredient to success. The Red Sox have a good bullpen, but desire an elite one.

While Dombrowski remains confident in a number of pitchers on the roster serving in key bullpen roles, he would prefer someone with more experience in a setup role to bridge the gap to his closer.

“We’re looking for one person because we think that some of the other guys we have, ability wise, can probably do the role, but they don’t have the experience,” Dombrowski told reporters, per WEEI’s Rob Bradford. “When you have guys like [Joe] Kelly and [Matt] Barnes and [Heath] Hembree, I think we’re looking for one guy at this point.”

Notably absent from the list Dombrowski rattled off are a pair of relievers entering free agency, both of whom have the kind of eighth inning experience the team covets. Despite that Koji Uehara and Brad Ziegler are proven late-inning options, it doesn’t sound like Dombrowski expects either to return to the Red Sox next season.

Uehara finished the season strong following a stint on the disabled list, but he’ll turn 42 years old in April. He has meant a lot to this franchise since taking the league by storm as a dominant closer in 2013, but his age and injury history will undoubtedly make the team hesitant to offer him a new contract. If he does return, the Red Sox will still want a more durable option to rely on for that setup role.

As for Ziegler, he pitched very well following the mid-season trade that brought him to Boston, finishing with a 1.52 ERA over 29 2/3 innings with the Red Sox. Despite that he has experience as both a closer and setup man, the team still seems to view the submarine style pitcher as more of match-up dependent option. Ziegler’s penchant for issuing walks is also a concern in tight games and the surprising strikeout rate he showed in a small sample size seems unsustainable based on his larger track record.

Ziegler could still be a valuable member of this bullpen, but he will certainly use his strong finish and experience in the ninth inning to secure a closer gig elsewhere for more money that what the Red Sox would pay him to be a sixth/seventh inning reliever.

The wild card in the bullpen is Carson Smith, who is expected to return to the team after missing virtually all of 2016 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. The optimists among us hope he’ll be ready by spring training, but early June seems to be a more realistic target. The Red Sox certainly won’t rush him back and there’s not guarantee that he’ll return to form following a serious injury. If he eventually provides the bullpen with another reliable arm to use late in games then the Red Sox will consider that a bonus, but they aren’t relying solely on Smith to spearhead the setup role.

There are a number of elite closers on the free agent market, including Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon. Boston could target any one of them if they want to assemble a super-pen, similar to what the Yankees tried to do last winter or what the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs both rode to the World Series following mid-season trades with New York. As long as the Red Sox are willing to shell out “closer money” to sign them, perhaps one of them can be enticed into forgoing the glorified ninth inning role to setup for Kimbrel.

If that path doesn’t pan out there are other avenues Dombrowski can explore to find a reliable late-inning arm, including former Royals closer Greg Holland, who received positive reviews from his showcase earlier this week as he works his way back from Tommy John. It’s unclear how they would view him any differently from Smith, but perhaps if Holland is further along in his recovery he could be worth a gamble.

A year ago Dombrowski entered his first offseason at the helm of the Red Sox front office vowing to deliver an ace to lead the rotation and a closer to finish games. He came through on both fronts, so we can count on him to find a quality setup man to fill what is one of the team’s few significant needs entering next season.

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