David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The arms race is nothing new to the century-old rivalry between the Red Sox and Yankees. The two teams have jockeyed for the game’s best talent since Jacob Ruppert purchased Babe Ruth from Harry Frazee for $100,000, a princely sum in 1920.
This past winter, however, the targets didn’t involve an expensive slugger, like the wrangling over Mark Teixeira in 2008. Or even a former Cy Young winner in David Price, who signed a $217-million deal to go to Boston without a peep from the Yankees.
No, the escalation for 2016 took place in the bullpen. After the Red Sox witnessed what the Yankees’ two-headed monster of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances accomplished last season, new team president Dave Dombrowski made the November trade for Craig Kimbrel, dealing four highly regarded prospects to the Padres.
It didn’t matter that Dombrowski inherited Koji Uehara, who had amassed 72 saves in three seasons with the Red Sox, not to mention five during the World Series run in 2013 (Uehara earned ALCS MVP honors). The need for speed led him to Kimbrel and, less than a month later, another trade with the Mariners for their former closer, Carson Smith.
Also factor in Heath Hembree, acquired from the Giants for Jake Peavy in 2014, and Matt Barnes, a 2011 first-round pick, and the Red Sox seem to have improved on what had been the Yankees’ greatest edge within the division. Even with a pair of closer-quality arms at the back of his own bullpen, Brian Cashman followed Boston’s ante by dealing for Aroldis Chapman in late December.
At the time, the trade certainly felt redundant, stockpiling three closers when the Yankees had bigger deficiencies in the rotation. But with Joe Girardi going to Betances for an unprecedented third straight day Friday, and Miller being called on for a wild four-out save in that night’s 3-2 win over the Red Sox, it looks as if the addition of Chapman is not only welcomed but necessary as the Yankees attempt to claw back from a 9-17 start, their worst since 1991.
Unlike Kimbrel, who already has nine saves in 10 chances, Chapman’s impact has been delayed by his 30-game suspension, the penalty stemming from domestic-abuse allegations. But Chapman returns tomorrow and will take over the closer’s title from Miller, who is 6-for-6 in save opportunities after going 36-for-38 last season, his first year in that role.
Girardi isn’t concerned about overcrowding, however. He just views the Betances-Miller- Chapman trio as improving his options, with the addition of Chapman’s 100-plus-mph fastball to the mix.
“I think I’ll probably enjoy it immensely,” Girardi said. “It’s a situation where, in a lot of ways, you’ll have at least two almost every night. So I think that it shortens games and I think it gives you three closers that you can interchange. I think it can be a huge lift for us.”
And spell middle-to-late inning doom for opposing teams, who will have to contend with ridiculous heat paired with nearly unhittable sliders. According to FanGraphs’ Pitch f/x, Chapman, Betances and Miller have average fastball velocities of 98.8, 96.7 and 95.0, respectively.
The Yankees may have the numbers, but it’s the Sox who can boast the game’s heir apparent to Mariano Rivera in Kimbrel.
Rivera, who retired at 43, finished with 652 saves in 19 seasons, only 17 of which he spent as a full-time closer.
Kimbrel, who turns 28 at the end of this month, already has 234 saves. At the same age, Rivera had 48.
Could Kimbrel catch Rivera? He’s been able to stay healthy despite throwing freakishly hard — his average fastball velocity is 96.7 mph, according to FanGraphs’ Pitch f/x. Not only have those radar-gun readings been consistent during his first seven seasons, but the numbers have ticked slightly upward, starting from 95.4 mph in 2010 to 97.3 this year.
Chapman holds claim to the sport’s speed crown, but Kimbrel is the closest to this generation’s Rivera. He also joined the Red Sox at the start of the Dombrowski regime, which could give him the benefit of closing games for a perennial contender during his stay, as Rivera was able to do for nearly two decades in the Bronx. With closers of that caliber as the anchor, it tends to fortify the bullpen as whole.
“He’s had a multi-pronged effect,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said of Kimbrel. “You’re talking about one of the premier closers in the history of the game. His strikeout ability is clear. He’s allowed Koji [Uehara] to be in the eighth-inning role, a strike-thrower with a swing-and-miss pitch in his own right. And more than anything, we’ve got a greater number of quality relievers. We’ve added power arms with a lot more depth.”
Through Friday, the Yankees’ bullpen had the best K/9 rate in the American League at 11.43, followed by the Red Sox at 9.88. Chapman’s arrival should help the Yankees widen that gap a bit, as long as they give him enough leads to protect, something that was a struggle in the first five weeks of this season. In the arms race between the Red Sox and the Yankees, having the best weapons is no good unless they can use them.
Carlos C gaining on Joe D
On Wednesday, when Carlos Correa went 3-for-5 with a home run, three RBIs and three runs scored, the Astros’ precocious shortstop notched his fourth career game of at least three hits, three RBIs and three runs scored. Correa is only the 12th player in MLB history to have four or more such games before turning 23 years old. Of the other 11, seven are Hall of Famers, with Bryce Harper the only other active player. Joe DiMaggio heads the list with seven.
Wrigley wrecking crew
The Cubs, who had a run differential of plus-93 through their first 26 games (an average of plus-3.58) are on pace to crush the record held by the 1939 Yankees, who finished with a plus-411, according to Elias. The rest of the top six: the ’27 Yankees (plus-376), ’02 Pirates (plus-335), ’36 Yankees (plus-334), ’06 Cubs (plus-323) and ’98 Yankees (plus-309).