Brad Boxberger: Are we sure that he's good? It's a baiting question—and should be rephrased to "are we sure that he's great?"—but with the Rays discussing him with other teams, the question is worth delving into.
He might have served as the Rays closer last season, and even led the American League in saves, but his 2015 performance was not a great one, and the second half of the season was marred by poor performances and complaints about his usage as the bullpen faltered, sinking the Rays' hopes of reaching the post-season.
In his four years in the majors, only his 2014 season, his first with the Rays, stands out as a dominant performance:
Who is a comparable pitcher?
If we turn to play index and isolate the first four seasons for all relievers since 1995, and filter for a minimum of 40 saves and a 120 ERA+, Boxberger checks in at 38th on the list, with 44 saves and a 128 ERA+. But if we want to measure what he might be worth on the open market, there are a few comps to be found.
The leader on the list is Craig Kimbrel with 129 saves and a 280 ERA+ from 2010 to 2013, who was recently traded with two years left on his contract. His two most recent seasons had performance level below that of his amazing first four seasons, but still Brad Boxberger's track record doesn't come close.
Andrew Bailey was dealt between the A's and Red Sox after his first three years in the 2011 off-season. He was sent to Oakland with Ryan Sweeney for prospects Raul Alcantara and Miles Head, and OF Josh Reddick. At the time of the deal he was just three seasons into his career, sporting 75 saves and a 205 ERA+, but he completely fell apart in his fourth season, and his career never took off again.
Mark Melancon was also traded that off-season to Boston, arriving from the Astros for SS Jed Lowrie and RHP Kyle Weiland. In just three seasons he'd owned 20 saves with a 124 ERA+, but would go one to save only one game for Boston. The ERA+ is closer to what Boxberger has shown, and Melancon would rebound with the Pirates later on in his career, but both trade comps are cautionary tales.
As for Boxberger's immediate contemporaries, there is one player who serves as a near match when taking the first four seasons into consideration: Tom Wilhelmsen.
Just last month, new Mariners GM Jerry DiPoto packaged Tom "The Bartender" Wilhelmsen, OF James Jones, and a PTBNL for OF Leonys Martin and RHP Anthony Bass. There's a lot more moving parts to this deal, but even taking Wilhelmsen's fifth season into consideration (up to 67 saves with a 126 ERA+), the similarity stands.
Boxberger has two more years of team control than the now-Ranger reliever, but at a broad level the comp works if you remove young OF Jones from the equation. In fact, it doesn't feel all that different to me than the Melancon trade.
The Rays have Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger swirling in trade rumors, and the Winter Meetings are next week. Maybe the team is looking for best value, knowing either McGee's knees or Boxberger's talent could bust at any time. Maybe the team is merely looking to see if any other club will over-shoot each reliever's value.
Either way, the Craig Kimbrel trade provided an interesting roadmap for a possible Jake McGee deal, but there's greater variance to what Boxberger could command, making a trade both possible and hard to predict. If it's anything similar to The Bartender, you're gonna need one.
Thanks to Andrew Mearns of Pinstripe Alley for research assistance.