Red Sox closer Matt Barnes is in the midst of a career year at the perfect time, with free agency looming just a few months down the road. However, while many free-agents-to-be set an Opening Day deadline for extension talks with their current club, Barnes made clear this week that he’s “absolutely” open to talking about a new contract during the season (link via Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com). Barnes added that while the two sides talked during Spring Training and even exchanged numbers, the Red Sox haven’t made an offer since.
Barnes, 31 next week, has the second-highest strikeout rate among all qualified relievers at a whopping 49.5 percent, trailing only division rival Aroldis Chapman for the MLB lead. He’s worked 26 1/3 innings for the Sox this season and notched a tidy 2.73 ERA but with an even better 1.36 FIP and 1.33 SIERA.
Barnes has long been a solid late-inning option with well above-average strikeouts, but he’s taken his game to new heights in 2021. The breakout isn’t accompanied by a major uptick in fastball velocity or spin rate — both are actually down a bit from 2019 — or by the implementation of a new pitch.
The biggest change for Barnes looks attributable to the best command the right-hander has ever had. His 7.4 percent walk rate is far and away the lowest of his career. Barnes walked 12.7 percent of his opponents from 2018-20, but he’s slashed that this season in large part by emphasizing strike one; he’d thrown a first-pitch strike at just a 58 percent clip in his career prior to 2021, but that number has skyrocketed to 72.6 percent this season — a mark that ranks fourth-best among 182 qualified relievers. He’s inducing chases on pitches out of the strike zone at a career-high 37.6 percent, and his opponents’ 46.5 percent contact rate on those chases is the second-best mark of his career (trailing his 44.4 percent mark in 2018).
This is the best version of Barnes that the Red Sox have seen, and his breakthrough has no doubt played a role in the Red Sox beating virtually all preseason expectations with a 37-25 record with nearly 40 percent of the season in the books. Barnes is tied for fifth in Major League Baseball with 14 saves, has only blown two opportunities this season, and has only been scored upon in five of his 26 appearances.
All of that positions Barnes quite nicely as the open market looms. There’s no established, dominant presence among this winter’s group, which leaves Barnes looking like a candidate to hit the market as the top name available. Fellow breakout right Kendall Graveman could give him some competition in that regard, but Barnes is undeniably well-positioned for the time being.
Barnes is earning every bit of a $4.5MM salary thus far in 2021, but he’d obviously be in line for a sizable raise on that rate over a multi-year deal in free agency. This past offseason wasn’t a great year for relievers as a whole. Only Liam Hendriks topped two years in length or $9MM in annual value (on a multi-year deal). His $54MM guarantee from the White Sox is one of the largest sums ever promised to a reliever, but Blake Treinen’s two-year, $17.5MM deal was the next-largest contract for any bullpen arm.
A year prior, the top bullpen arms on the market were lefties Will Smith (three years, $40MM) and Drew Pomeranz (four years, $34MM). In 2018-19 we saw each of Joe Kelly, Adam Ottavino, Familia and Zack Britton score three-year pacts with average annual values ranging from $8-13MM.
If Barnes can sustain this output, history suggests he’d be able to target seeking a contract of at least three years in free agency. An annual salary approaching or even exceeding $10MM — perhaps by a decent margin — wouldn’t seem outlandish if he continues punching out nearly half of his opponents. Barnes’ track record of this level of dominance is relatively short, but that was also true of many of the relievers who cashed in over the past three offseasons (Hendriks and Pomeranz chief among them).
There’s no indication that the Red Sox are planning a run at extending Barnes just yet. Luxury-tax concerns have underscored nearly every move the team has made for the past couple years. That said, Sox are under the line this year and could structure any contract as a new deal beginning in 2022 so as not to impact their 2021 bottom line (as they did when extending Chris Sale a couple years back). The Red Sox have about $127MM in luxury-tax obligations on the 2022 ledger, per Jason Martinez of Roster Resource. Critically, we don’t know what the luxury barrier will be in 2022 or if the luxury-tax system will even exist in its current state. That, of course is dependent on the ongoing collective bargaining talks. Whatever happens, Barnes made clear the ball is in the team’s court.
“We haven’t had any discussions since spring training,” said Barnes. “If the Red Sox want to make an offer and they want to start those conversations… I’ve always been a firm believer that listening to information is always free.”