Kimbrel's fall highlights Dombrowski's lack of vision

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BOSTON -- If Dave Dombrowski actually thought the Red Sox didn’t need a reliever at some point between this winter and this very moment, he was wrong. If Dombrowski felt the Sox needed such an arm but didn't feel comfortable giving up the assets necessary, he has only his poor asset planning to blame.

Craig Kimbrel is having the worst season of his career. The closer still strikes out a ton of hitters, but is now walking far too many. He gave up two free passes in another blown save on Tuesday night, this time against the miserable Marlins in an eventual 8-7 win, a victory the Sox did not deserve.

Kimbrel’s bullpen colleagues -- Matt Barnes in particular -- are similarly inclined to give free bases. Sox relievers are 20th out of 30 in walk rate overall, and fourth of five in the American League East. 

The best team at avoiding free passes in relief is Cleveland. The second-best team is Houston. The Yankees are at No. 14.

“I don’t believe in ugly wins. I believe in wins,” Jackie Bradley Jr. said after he had a big hit Tuesday that helped the Sox after Barnes and Heath Hembree blew a 4-1, eighth-inning lead and Kimbrel couldn't close it after being handed a 7-6 lead in the ninth. “As long as we continue to win, I don’t care how ugly it is.”

RED SOX 8, MARLINS 7

But ugly won’t always turn out well.

Dombrowski keeps falling short in preparing his roster for a basic fact of baseball life: Players drop off. They underperform, they lose ability, they get distracted by the real world and they get hurt. What you have seen in the past is not necessarily what you will see in the future, even the near future.

Optimism is a wonderful quality. Constant doubt is a better fit in roster building. Dombrowski's blindspot has been exposed repeatedly in Boston.

The offense of last year’s Red Sox, of 2017, was a strong example of Dombrowski’s poor grasp on contingency planning. When the Sox committed to staying under the luxury tax threshold for 2017 -- when they committed to not replacing David Ortiz -- they were assuming that Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi would all repeat strong 2016 seasons.

The Sox saw the folly of that path and signed J.D. Martinez this winter.

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By never upgrading the bullpen behind Kimbrel, the assumption was clear: Well, he’s a certainty, at the least. He couldn’t stumble. Nothing could possibly go wrong with him. If the Sox had acquired a strong high-leverage reliever at some point to replace Addison Reed; had they signed someone over the winter and had the vision to see they’d wind up crossing the highest luxury tax threshold this year at some point, Kimbrel’s struggles might be less worrisome. At the least, there’d be an effort that can be pointed to. Back-up cannot be limitless, but the bullpen was such an obvious area of need last fall.

Entering Tuesday, Kimbrel was the 25th most valuable reliever in the majors, per FanGraphs’ wins above replacement. He’s been good in 2018. Maybe very good, taken all together. But he’s not elite at this moment, not in the class with, say, Edwin Diaz.

Kimbrel could be again. He was king for a long time. Yet, his poor performance in Game 4 of the American League Division Series last year seems to be entirely ignored, and his slide this year hasn’t grabbed much of a spotlight. In his walk year, Kimbrel has continuously put the Sox in tenuous situations, situations that playoff teams will capitalize on.

“It has been (spotty), there's no denying that, we can all see it,” Kimbrel said of the bullpen recently.

Well, maybe not “all” can see it.

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In June, Dombrowski was peddling positive assumptions, wondering how Tyler Thornburg, Drew Pomeranz and Steven Wright would fit in together.

“Those are three guys,” Dombrowski said. “Have got Wright and Pomeranz, if they both come back, they both can't start, somebody's going to slide back into the bullpen.”

Boy, that would be a real conundrum.

“You have to be in a position that you have enough spots out there,” Dombrowski said in June. “And our bullpen has been, we think, effective overall. Kimbrel of course has done a good job. [Joe] Kelly has been in a little bit of a streak here recently, but he's done a good job for us. Barnes has pitched good, [Brandon] Workman's pitched well since he's been here, Hembree -- so we'll evaluate that. You have to be better than that (what we have now to make a trade worthwhile), and us willing to pay the price to be better than that. But I think that will be one that we'll continue to evaluate.”

There’s no viable excuse for Dombrowski. The payroll is too high, the investment in terms of prospects (and prospects never replenished, at that) too great. He bought a house that had some problems, decided to install very expensive upgrades, and forgot a functional toilet. 

Maybe, more accurately, he decided that he didn’t need any money on reserve in case the toilet -- which kept making weird noises -- stopped working reliably.

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