Chances are, Matt Barnes will have the last laugh.
If he’s ever good again, if he has just one more great season left in him, the Red Sox will look like fools.
They sort of already do.
Signing a 31-year-old closer to an $18.75 million contract extension two days before his first All-Star Game in 2021, then cutting bait just 18 months later, is the kind of move that can forever haunt a baseball executive.
Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said “it’s a great day for the Red Sox” on July 11, 2021, when he announced the Barnes extension.
“We’ve all seen it over the last number of years, Matt has established himself as one of the better relievers in baseball, and this year he’s taken his game to a whole new level in an even bigger role,” he said.
Since then, Barnes has thrown 57.1 innings with a 4.87 ERA, 1.50 WHIP and 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings. He was designated for assignment this week and the Red Sox are on the hook for the entirety of his contract, assuming no team claims off waivers, a safe assumption.
There’s no debating that Barnes has fallen off a cliff over the last 18 months. But there’s one thing that stands out after the Sox’ decision to cut ties with Barnes this week: it happened fast.
In the year-and-a-half before the extension, Barnes had thrown 60 innings with a 3.30 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 14 K/9, numbers that put him among the best five relievers in baseball.
Just like that, he’s not worth hanging onto?
It’s not unusual to see big market teams eat bad contracts. It is unusual to see a big market team that’s acting like a small market team sign a player to an extension before he reaches free agency – something they’ve struggled to do — and then cut him just 57 innings later.
Even after it was clear he had lost his fastball early in the ‘22 season, the Sox were determined to get him back to pitching the way he did a year earlier. And late in the season, when it was clear he had rediscovered his confidence — the No. 1 issue all along, he told the Herald at the time — manager Alex Cora started using him in the late innings again.
Barnes ended the season with 12 straight scoreless outings, went 5-for-5 in save opportunities and held opponents to a .611 OPS.
After giving him valuable opportunities to earn confidence and build trust in September, how did the Red Sox change their tune so quickly?
That’s the confusing part of all this.
Here’s the thing: if the Red Sox had a stacked bullpen and Barnes had ended the season as disastrously had he started it, if he had a terrible offseason and had serious health concerns that led the Sox to wonder if he’d ever be effective again, nobody would blink twice about the move.
But the Sox have a handful of guys on the 40-man roster that seemingly could’ve been cut just as easily. Guys like Kaleb Ort, Zack Kelly and Wyatt Mills – guys who, chances are, will be DFA’d at some point in the next year — were kept ahead of Barnes.
Why? It’s easy, really. They have options. They’re cheap. And the Red Sox have valued affordable control over and over again in the Bloom era.
It’s not a bad thing to aim for efficiency in a baseball organization. It’s the attempt to get too cute in every corner of the roster that’s made Bloom a tough guy for Red Sox fans to rally behind.
The obvious answer isn’t always the right answer – but sometimes it is.
The obvious answer is rarely Bloom’s answer, and when a general manager-type attempts to play the game more creatively than everybody else, success is mandatory or he ends up on the unemployment line.
More pitchers is better than one, and the mass collection of pitchers strategy has clearly been Bloom’s priority since the beginning here. The true surprise is he went out and got Kenley Jansen and Chris Martin this winter.
For a guy who loves prioritizing depth over top-end talent on the pitching side, there’s something to be said for his sudden change of heart.
Did Cora demand the front office give him something – anything – to work with in the late innings? Or did Bloom legitimately come around on the idea that elite pitchers don’t grow on trees and sometimes, no matter how difficult it is, you have to pay top dollar to get a couple?
He paid for Barnes and that backfired.
He showed the desire to spend fair market value on Jansen and Martin – two high-end relievers on the final stretch of their careers.
But Bloom has yet to pay top dollar for a starting pitcher. And instead, the Red Sox continue shopping in the bargain bin.
The free agent market was loaded with starting pitchers this winter, among them Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Kodai Senga, Carlos Rodon, Chris Bassitt, Jameson Taillon, Taijuan Walker, Sean Manaea, Andrew Heaney, Noah Syndergaard, Nathan Eovaldi, Clayton Kershaw, Jose Quintana, Zach Eflin, Martin Perez, Tyler Anderson and Ross Stripling.
But the Red Sox made just one addition to the staff: Corey Kluber, a 36-year-old with an 88-mph fastball who, until last year, hadn’t made 30 starts in a season since 2018.
So the Red Sox will keep Ort, Kelly and Mills, continue to option them back and forth from the minors to the majors, and try to compete for a World Series title that way in 2023.
Barnes won’t be a part of it.
If he pitches well for anyone else, the Red Sox are going to look awfully foolish.