Eight months ago, Craig Kimbrel declared for free agency. A lot has happened since then. There were rumors in November that Kimbrel wanted a six year deal. We don’t know what happened to Kimbrel’s demands or when. We don’t know what offers were made and then rejected, or not made because of those perceived demands. We don’t know if draft pick compensation was a legitimate concern or simply an excuse for teams to hide behind. What we do know is that Craig Kimbrel is no longer a free agent. Ken Rosenthal first reported that Kimbrel had agreed to a deal with the Chicago Cubs for three years and roughly $45 million, with Jeff Passan reporting Kimbrel will make $10 million this season and $16 million in each of the following two years with a $1 million buyout on a team option for 2022.
Every team could use Craig Kimbrel. The Red Sox — whose current saves leader, Ryan Brasier, has a 5.30 FIP and ERA over four as the team has struggled to stay above .500 — wasn’t interested in bringing Kimbrel back and paying the 75% tax on his salary. The Atlanta Braves — who are in a fight for first place with a below replacement level bullpen performance that is worse than every teams outside of Miami and Baltimore and payroll flexibility coming off a division title and new taxpayer-funded stadium — opted not to get involved. The Nationals — with an MLB-worst 6.66 bullpen ERA as they try to get back into playoff contention — chose to try and stay below the competitive balance tax. The Brewers — who watched Corey Knebel go down with a season-ending injury and watched their 2018 strength turn into a liability outside of Josh Hader — sat and watched Kimbrel go to their rival.
Other teams opted to fill their bullpen needs more frugally. The Cardinals signed Andrew Miller to a contract guaranteeing $25 million and have received below replacement-level production. The Phillies brought in David Robertson for $23 million and have watched him pitch poorly in just seven games due to injury. The Mets traded away top prospect Jared Kelenic and took on the bulk of Robinson Cano’s contract for Edwin Diaz, who has pitched well, but then spent $30 million on Jeurys Familia, who has not. For a guaranteed $25 million, Joe Kelly has an ERA near eight as the Dodgers tried to stay under the competitive tax again after averaging over $250 million from 2013-2017. The Yankees likely don’t have complaints about the $66 million they spent on Adam Ottavino or Zack Britton, though they seem the exception rather than the rule.
Of course, maybe the last few paragraphs don’t make the point they seem to be making. Nearly every team that has passed on Kimbrel has needed bullpen help. Those who have done nothing have paid for it, thus far. Those that have done something, but something not as likely to succeed as Craig Kimbrel, have seemingly paid for it as well. The real point might not be that teams should have been much more eager to sign Craig Kimbrel because they need good relievers. The point might be that relievers, even the best ones, are incredibly volatile and investing a bunch of money in them is a fool’s errand. It’s a very good theoretical argument to make, one I’ve made, and it might make sense in a different universe. Not this one, though.
In a baseball universe where teams gladly pay eight-figure salaries to relievers who are not as good as Craig Kimbrel, not getting Kimbrel at a slightly higher price doesn’t make as much sense. If a team is going to commit prospects and dollars for a reliever, Craig Kimbrel made more sense entering this offseason than any other pitcher, except for perhaps Ottavino. Two years ago, the Dodgers and Yankees spent around $80 million each for slightly better, younger versions of Kimbrel. Our readers expected a contract to match that perception, at around $64 million over four years. If Craig Kimbrel was offered four years and $64 million, then this delay and $20 million less in contract is on him and his agent. If teams pursuing discounted options never made that type of offer, then their weak bullpens through the early part of June are a mess of their own making.
Even the Cubs, the team that signed Kimbrel, is not without some very curious decision-making. Chicago entered the winter with an oft-injured closer who hadn’t pitched since July and decided their most reliable reliever down the stretch wasn’t worth eight million dollars over two seasons. In April, the bullpen was a disaster, but in June they decide to commit $43 million to a reliever who hasn’t pitched a competitive game in eight months because they wanted to keep the 64th pick in the draft and $500,000 in international money, when their combined value is a little bit more than Daniel Descalso-money? The Cubs should be getting the reliever they’ve been missing all season, arguably since last July, and $14 million per season plus another $5 million or so in taxes depending on Ben Zobrist’s ultimate status isn’t exactly cheap. The Cubs could have avoided this situation with better offseason planning, but given their bullpen now, signing Kimbrel seems like the easiest, best option for a team fighting for ground in a tight division as their World Series win grows slightly smaller in the rear-view mirror.
There are certainly reasons to be concerned about Craig Kimbrel even before this long layoff without a spring training. He was very good instead of great last season. He had a rough October. He’s over 30 years old. He’s a reliever. That this deal hadn’t happened before now makes it seem as if his demands were too high, because at this price, given other reliever contracts and performance, surely Kimbrel would have received better offers than the one he just signed for. In order to think that, though, we’d have to give teams the benefit of the doubt, a benefit they haven’t exactly earned after they’ve cut salaries two years in a row in the face of record revenues and digital windfalls. This contract is probably good for Kimbrel. It might be good for the Cubs. It isn’t good for baseball. The game is better when the best players are playing and for the last half dozen years, Craig Kimbrel has been one of its very best relievers. Some problems have easier solutions than others. If the issue here is draft pick compensation, then that issue needs to be fixed. If it’s a competitive balance tax that is too burdensome or provides too convenient an excuse not to pay free agents, then that needs to be addressed. If the issue is unreasonable expectations from players and agents, that’s something to work on, too.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.