From the moment Craig Kimbrel was traded to the Padres hours before the 2015 season was to begin, many fans have wondered if the homegrown star closer might one day return to the Braves. As Atlanta has tried to replace Kimbrel with Jason Grilli, Jim Johnson, and Arodys Vizcaino, Kimbrel remained outstanding for first San Diego and now Boston. This season, he’s pitching the best baseball of his life with a 12 K/BB ratio and a 1.04 FIP. Could the Braves try to entice their former All-Star to return home to Atlanta?
First off, there’s a small problem with even dreaming of Kimbrel returning next year. If the Red Sox had no problem paying Kimbrel $13 million this season, the smart money is on them picking up his option for 2018 which will pay him exactly the same. That would mean that Kimbrel’s Age-30 season will be spent as the closer for the Red Sox.
There’s the other problem – provided the Red Sox are not able to extend Kimbrel before the end of 2018, he’ll hit free agency as the best closer on the market. A few other current closers will be available at the same time, though that’s always subject to change as relievers are a fickle breed. Regardless of how many closers are on the market, none are Craig Kimbrel – though Andrew Miller is highly impressive even if he’s not being used as a closer and will command a significant salary. Furthermore, when Kimbrel becomes available, he’ll be aiming for a contract from a market that last winter gave Aroldis Chapman $86 million over five years and Kenley Jansen $80M. Provided Kimbrel hits the market healthy and pitching well, he’ll at least command a similar average annual value. Both Chapman and Jansen were entering their Age-29 seasons while Kimbrel’s first season of a new contract will be his Age-31 season. That might make it harder to get a fifth guaranteed season, but an open market might figure in big here and Kimbrel’s not only a good get for performance, but for his name.
Back to the Braves. Will they be interested? You bet your sweet behind they will. The bigger question is how interested and maybe the even biggest question is – should they be?
Back to the first question, a lot can change between now-and-then. Atlanta has a vast collection of impressive young arms and one of them could turn into their unquestioned closer before the end of 2018. A.J. Minter‘s name has often been thrown around as a closer-in-waiting. The team’s incumbent closer, Vizcaino, is team-controlled through 2019. The Braves have a plethora of other arms, many of them currently starting, that could also be in the discussion by the end of 2018 should they move to the bullpen. Regardless, John Coppolella has seemed to hint at Kimbrel being someone of interest for the Braves in previous #AskCoppy sessions so that could suggest to some degree how interested Atlanta would be.
Once again, the biggest question – should Atlanta be interested in signing Kimbrel – is much more interesting to me. Mainly because I’m going to say no. It’s not because I don’t love Kimbrel. I mean, what fan of the Braves doesn’t love Kimbrel? The man was an absolute beast in Atlanta and I, like most of Braves Twitter, loved to see people have a conniption over Kimbrel’s hat on a nightly basis. And I don’t think there’s much reason to believe Kimbrel won’t continue to be a dominant reliever for the foreseeable future. As I said, relievers are a fickle breed, but when someone does what Kimbrel has for the last seven years, you take notice. Getting to 30 saves once or twice in the majors isn’t that much of an accomplishment. From 2007 to 2016, there were 168 instances of pitchers reaching 30 saves or more – which comes out to roughly 17 pitchers a year. That’s more than half of the teams in the major leagues each season. Yet, only ten pitchers reached 200 saves – or roughly six-and-a-half years of reaching 30 saves. Just 28 others saved 100 games. Being able to accumulate saves year-after-year is a much rarer thing. Craig Kimbrel has proven that he’s not Juan Oviedo or Tom Wilhelmsen. He’s on another level and predicting continued success is not only prudent, it’s what the projection systems actually say. While Baseball Prospectus long-term forecast is very conservative, it doesn’t have Kimbrel reaching a 4.00 DRA until his Age-35 season in 2023. For what it’s worth, he’s never had a DRA in a full season over 2.21 so I imagine Kimbrel will beat those projections by a considerable amount.
If I love him so much and believe he’s going to remain very good, why do I hope the Braves pass on the prospect of bringing back Kimbrel?
It’s simple economics. The Braves opened this year with a $122 million payroll. That could climb in 2018, but how much is debatable considering the good, but not great attendance this season in SunTrust Park. Apparently, just having a new park doesn’t guarantee sellouts. I don’t foresee the Braves cutting salary moving forward, but I also didn’t believe their payroll would match some of the big boys in the league when they moved to Cobb County. There often is a bump, but payroll just doesn’t skyrocket because of a new park. Unless you’re the Marlins and that lasted, oh, a year.
Ignoring Atlanta’s commitments for 2019 and moving forward, a closer of Kimbrel’s ability would take up between $15M and $18M of payroll – possibly more. For a $130M payroll, that’s somewhere in the range of 12% to 14%. That’s a lot of money to spend for a player only pitching 60 times a year. Bringing back in those future commitments we just ignored, the Braves will pay, short of a trade, nearly $60M for Matt Kemp, Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, and Ender Inciarte in 2019 and adding a big closer’s salary will hamstring the entire budget.
And then there’s this – is Kimbrel at $15M that much better than Cody Allen, also a free agent in the winter of 2018-19? Or, for that matter, Vizcaino? There’s no simple answer to that question. Kimbrel’s a better pitcher than Allen and Vizcaino, but finances have to be considered. Think of it this way – would you rather have Vizcaino at $8M and a starting third baseman at a similar rate or would you rather have Kimbrel? With a limitless budget, you might go with Kimbrel and worry about the third baseman later. But the Braves are playing with the salary setting on so that has to be considered.
There’s also the argument that paying relievers that much money is foolish in general considering that they are so rarely used properly. The idea is that your closer is your best reliever, but so many teams – even smart ones like the Red Sox – utilize their closers in very restrictive ways. As the Braves found out in the 2013 NLDS, what’s the purpose in having a Kimbrel in the bullpen when he’s waiting until it’s the “right time” to bring him in? Meanwhile, a guy making the major league minimum is blowing the lead just so that you can save your closer until the ninth inning. To get the best value out of a pitcher like Kimbrel, the Braves would need to use their bullpen differently and be willing to surrender save opportunities for higher-leverage situations earlier in the game. At the same time, they would need to justify utilizing a $16M closer in the seventh inning to fans who only value relievers by how many saves they have.
The Braves making Kimbrel a target after 2018 isn’t a bad thing. He’s an amazing pitcher who could be in line for a handful or more 2 to 4 fWAR seasons after he concludes his current contract – which is no small feat for a reliever. But the finances and the way he’ll be used (which will limit his value to the Braves) make signing Kimbrel a bad investment.