Considering Craig Kimbrel’s excellence in the first nine seasons of his career, there appears to be a pretty good chance he will deliver an induction speech at Cooperstown. The strategic stature of starting pitchers has slowly diminished, with relievers assuming the responsibility left behind, and the bullpen guys are more readily making the Hall of Fame: Trevor Hoffman last summer, Lee Smith last week, Mariano Rivera next month.
And Kimbrel has been one of the most dominant relievers of his time, striking out 868 of the 2,087 batters he has faced on his way to 333 career saves, the most for any active pitcher. If the right-hander averaged just 30 saves a year over the next six seasons, he’d become the third reliever in history to accumulate 500 saves, following Hoffman and Rivera.
But that long pre-eminence may aid his free agency only marginally this winter, when Kimbrel is pushing upstream against the strong forces of supply and demand. It may be that the closer will get markedly less than anticipated, such as this projection of a $70 million contract.
Kimbrel’s agent, David Meter, asked interested teams for six-year offers as this offseason began. “I think he’s looking for Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman territory,” said an executive who was one of the sources of this November report. Jansen got $80 million over five years from the Dodgers, and the Yankees agreed to an $86 million deal with Chapman.
But at the time those elite relievers got those contracts, there were a bunch of big-market contenders looking for closers — the Yankees and Dodgers, of course, and the Cubs, and the Giants, who grabbed for the best guy on the second tier in Mark Melancon, for $62 million over four years.
Now, on the eve of 2019, the Yankees and the Dodgers have filled their closer spots. Melancon lost the closer role in San Francisco, but the Giants are going through a restructuring process and have more integral needs than in their bullpen. Roberto Osuna will be the Astros’ closer in the spring. The Mets just traded for Edwin Diaz to be the closer and signed Jeurys Familia to be the setup man. The Nationals have Sean Doolittle. The Indians could use bullpen depth, but they have cut payroll this winter rather than adding it. The Mariners are taking a step back.
The Angels would seem to be a possibility for Kimbrel, although the team’s more acute needs are in their rotation. The Braves don’t have a lot of payroll flexibility remaining, and perhaps other priorities: They have hung in the conversations for catcher J.T. Realmuto, and will likely sign an outfielder, so a pricey closer probably won’t be their first choice.
Kimbrel’s best offer may well come from the Boston Red Sox, and as we discussed on the podcast last month and on Baseball Tonight last Monday with Jim Bowden, Dave Dombrowski might be in pretty much the same position he was last winter with J.D. Martinez. If you recall, the Red Sox made a $100 million, five-year offer to Martinez very early in the offseason … and then they just sat and waited, and waited, and waited, with Dombrowski correctly reading that his was the most interested team, with the highest offer, in a market flush with corner outfield/slugger types. Martinez finally signed in February after the Red Sox nudged their offer to $110 million, far below some of the projections, and in light of his extraordinary first season in Boston and his leadership, Martinez could turn out to be one of the best bargains ever.
The same conditions that steered the Martinez talks could be in effect in Dombrowski’s conversations about Kimbrel:
1. As good as the player has been, there doesn’t appear to be widespread interest. Some evaluators have noted the performance hiccups Kimbrel had last season in their assessments of the closer, from his 4.57 second-half ERA to the moments in the postseason when he struggled to find the strike zone.
2. The Red Sox have a need and are interested. Kimbrel is the best available closer, just as Martinez was the best free-agent slugger last winter.
To what level is unclear — some folks in the industry guess Boston’s comfort level might hover in the range of what Melancon and Wade Davis ($52 million over three years) were paid the past two winters.
3. The market in which Kimbrel sits is absolutely overrun with alternative options. Any team leery of a six-year or five-year or even a four-year offer to Kimbrel can focus on the many cheaper free-agent closer options like David Robertson, Andrew Miller, Joakim Soria, Kelvin Herrera, Cody Allen, etc.
This also helps Dombrowski sit on whatever offer he’s comfortable with, because if the Braves or the Angels or Phillies or some other team stepped up and grabbed Kimbrel, Dombrowski could turn to Robertson.
There is also this: Kimbrel knows Boston. He knows the Red Sox staff. Dombrowski traded for him, manager Alex Cora trusted him implicitly, all the way the through the October shakiness. Kimbrel has history with the Red Sox that may continue, especially if the demand for his services doesn’t turn out to be as widespread as his agent might have hoped.