As November turns into December, we have a pretty good idea of what most teams are attempting to do with their short-term futures. The Red Sox are going for it, obviously, and so are the Blue Jays. The White Sox seem like they’re trying to improve for 2015; the Phillies might finally be ready to accept that they need to start over. Teams like the Cubs, Dodgers and Yankees haven’t yet made much noise, but their intentions are clear. Other than whatever it is the A’s are trying to pull, where most teams are on the success cycle is more or less an open secret.
Other than the Braves, that is. The trade that sent Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden to St. Louis for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins was largely unpopular in Atlanta, but it made a considerable amount of sense for both sides, because the Cardinals got one year of the best player involved and the Braves got 10 years of two pitchers with upside. For the long term, assuming they had decided that extending Heyward was just not going to happen, it’s a smart move. For the short term, it almost unquestionably made their 2015 team worse, and there’s been at least one recent media report that indicates that “it sounds as if the Braves will make moves aimed toward competing for titles in 2017 rather than the next two seasons.”
If so, that makes sense. There’s obvious appeal in having a winner ready for the new ballpark the club will move into in 2017, and this current Braves team, as constructed, isn’t likely to be particularly good. There’s constant rumors that Justin Upton could be traded, too, and Evan Gattis might follow him out the door as well — or worse, start every day in left field. There’s not currently a second baseman, or realistic hope for B.J. Upton, and the rotation is full of question marks. This was a bad offense last year, and without Heyward, now it looks worse.
With that reality, here’s the question: Why not trade Craig Kimbrel? Like, now?
Before we delve into Kimbrel, let’s qualify the “this team isn’t likely to be particularly good” statement. That’s not just an idea pulled out of thin air. It’s an acknowledgment that a franchise that has won exactly two playoff games in the nine seasons since their endless run atop the NL East came to a close in 2005 just lost more games than they have since 2008, and that their projected WAR position on our 2015 Depth Charts is pretty dire:
Perhaps you think Miller’s projection underrates him (certainly, his inconsistency plays a role here) or that Julio Teheran or Mike Minor are going to be better than Steamer thinks. That’s fine. There’s certainly room to quibble around the small edges of a WAR projection. But the point is that there’s no amount of squinting that’s going to move the Braves from the far right end of this chart to the left end, unless the team somehow manages to fill replacement-level holes at second base (Phil Gosselin), third base (Chris Johnson), left field (Gattis), center field (B.J. Upton), and at the bottom of the rotation. If they trade Justin Upton, add another problem area to the list, dependent of course on what they get back.
It’s not impossible that the Braves pull it all together for a surprise run in 2015, but the facts of the situation and their own move to weaken the offense make it seem unlikely. This isn’t a full-scale teardown either, not with Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons around and Miller joining a relatively young rotation. But it is a situation where you have to ask yourself which scenario is preferable, in regards to Kimbrel:
1) Keep him for a potentially down season or two where a closer — even an elite one — is more a luxury than a necessity and pray that he’s still a valuable piece in 2017, his eighth season, when he’ll be owed $13.25 million, and the relaunch is hopefully ready;
2) Trade him now, add a boost to a limited farm system to aid that relaunch, and pass off the risk on someone else.
And there is risk, of course. This isn’t a piece about how Kimbrel has some warning sign of impending doom or that his velocity is about to implode or anything like that. If you wanted to try really, really hard to do that, you could note that his K%-BB% has dropped from 44.2 to 30.2 to 28.3 over the last three years, but that’s just the difference between “unfathomably, unspeakably great” and “really, truly outstanding.” He’s one of the two best closers in the game along with Aroldis Chapman. It’s not my intention to convince you that he isn’t.
It is, however, worth noting that in order for what the Braves appear to be attempting to work, to build around their closer and hope that he’s still fantastic and worth a high salary three seasons from now and eight seasons in, we’re not just talking about Kimbrel’s place among his contemporaries. The bet would then have to be that Kimbrel isn’t just something special, but that he’s historic in a way that few others have ever been.
In the last 30 years of baseball, or roughly the era where the modern bullpen has been in use, there have been 176 qualified closer seasons (defined as “10 saves,” and while I despise saves as much as you do, it’s an easy way to define Kimbrel’s closer brethren) worth at least 2 WAR. Four of those belong to Kimbrel. Other than the incomparable Mariano Rivera, no one has topped six:
But Rivera, Nathan and Hoffman all took a few years into their careers before they were handed the ninth inning, so let’s look at this another way. Kimbrel just completed his age-26 season, and the chart below shows the top 20 relievers (not closers, this time) by career WAR over the same 30-year span.
|Relievers through age 26, 1985-2014|
There’s a few success stories for post-26 careers here, notably Papelbon and Street, and some contemporaries in Jansen and Chapman who haven’t written their futures yet. Rodriguez never completely collapsed, but nor has he been anything like what he was as a young Angel, either. Dibble, Olson, Wohlers and Urbina were all basically done by 30. Overall, this isn’t a fantastically exciting group as far as young closers who have succeeded to become old closers.
Obviously, the experiences of others don’t guarantee anything about Kimbrel, and his peak has been higher than most of the other names listed here — and hey, maybe he really is the once-in-a-generation guy he’s looked like, the one who breaks all of the rules we’ve learned to live by. You can’t just cover your eyes and expect that his dominance is going to continue indefinitely. It very rarely works that way, and if it doesn’t, the Braves might find themselves wishing they had sold when his value was its highest. (As for what they could get, coming up with speculative trade ideas is often folly, but it’s fair to note that win-now contenders like the Tigers, Dodgers, Angels, Blue Jays, etc., could all stand to benefit from an elite arm, even if they already have a closer.)
If the Braves were positioned to be a strong contender in 2015, this isn’t a conversation we’re even thinking about. If 2016 was the goal, this isn’t a thought either. But now we’re talking about 2017, three seasons out, and that’s a date that’s fueled more by a ballpark than by a particular group of players all being ready, like you might say with the 2016 Cubs. The question is less about finding reasons why the Braves should trade Kimbrel, and more about finding reasons why they shouldn’t. Otherwise, the plan seems to be cross your fingers and pray that this all works out in three years. That might be the biggest risk of all.