This offseason, after the Red Sox obtained Craig Kimbrel, the Yankees answered by adding Aroldis Chapman. And now, arguably, baseball's two top closers are in the American League East.
Kimbrel and Chapman, both 27, combined to save 72 games last year, 39 for Kimbrel in his only year with the Padres and 33 for Chapman in his final year with the Reds. Chapman routinely throws his fastball faster than 100 mph and Kimbrel is showing the long-term consistency that was a staple of the greatest relievers in recent history, Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera.
With pitchers and catchers set to report to Spring Training in two weeks, it makes one wonder: Which team got the better closer? Boston or New York? Hoffman, who missed election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame this year by 34 votes, thinks he has the answer.
"Having the ability to watch Craig go about his business, it's hard to believe he isn't the best closer in the league right now," said Hoffman, the Padres' senior advisor of baseball operations. "He really has dominant stuff. He's a lockdown guy at the back of the 'pen. He can go multiple innings if you ask him to do it. Really, he's more of a leader than I realized at his age. I was impressed by the way he handled himself."
San Diego traded Kimbrel to Boston on Nov. 13 for a quartet of prospects. The Red Sox have Kimbrel for a guaranteed $25.5 million over the next two years, with a $13 million option for 2018.
The Yankees obtained Chapman on Dec. 28 for rookie pitcher Caleb Cotham and three Minor Leaguers. Chapman, who requested a $13.1 million salary for 2016 via arbitration, will be a free agent at the end of the season, and the trade was made with Chapman still under the shadow of domestic-abuse charges, which have since been dropped, though he could still face punishment from the league.
Chapman has a big edge in the velocity department, but his career K/9 ratio of 15.4 is not much higher than Kimbrel's 14.5. The Reds toyed with the notion early on of making Chapman a starter, like he was with the Cuban national team prior to his defection. But they opted to utilize the fireballer as a closer, and he has 146 saves in six seasons.
In a twist of fate, the Yanks brought Chapman in for a tour before he signed with the Reds and decided that the left-hander was too immature at the time to succeed in the New York market.
Meanwhile, Kimbrel has 225 saves in his six seasons, 186 of them for the Braves -- a franchise record -- prior to his trade to the Padres on the final day of last year's Spring Training.
If Kimbrel had been the closer for the Braves during their run of 14 consecutive division championships from 1991-2005, they might have won the World Series more than once during that era. The Yankees had Rivera and won five rings, two of them against the Braves.
"It's something we never really talk about, but that's 100 percent right," said Hall of Famer John Smoltz, a key member of Atlanta's starting rotation back then. "The amount of innings we pitched and how deep we pitched into games because there wasn't really a bona fide closer ... I'm not going to say I would have won another game, but I would've lost 50 less, easy.
"The amount of games you lose in the eighth and ninth inning over time is amazing. There's no doubt that in the history of our run there was that guy on the other side in pinstripes."
Now Chapman is in pinstripes and he'll follow Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, who had 36 saves last season -- despite missing a month with a forearm injury -- and was given the Rivera Award as the AL's top reliever.
The Royals have gone to the World Series the past two years -- defeating the Mets last fall -- with shutdown relievers designated for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. But that's not the method to the Yankees' madness. The Yanks opted to shorten the game for a bevy of starters who are either aging or have been plagued with injuries the past two seasons. In the offseason, they didn't add anyone new to that group.
"They like the idea in New York of shortening the game from the back forward," Hoffman said. "The Yankees have the ability to do what the Royals have done the last few years. Any late lead seems to be secure."
In Boston, the Red Sox not only added Kimbrel, but also David Price, signing the premier starter as a free agent for seven years and $217 million.
Unlike the Yanks, the Red Sox decided to build their pitching staff with a stunning lead starter at one end and a lights-out closer at the other. In between, they'll fill in the blanks.
Whatever method works will be determined by the vagaries of the 162-game season. But Hoffman is right. You have to love Kimbrel, and on paper, right now, let's give the Red Sox the edge.