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Nothing says more about the state of Major League Baseball in 2019 than the fact that one of the biggest stories during the MLB Draft is the possible signings of two of last winter’s biggest name-brand free agents. Unencumbered by the signing team’s loss of draft picks with the conclusion of the MLB Draft, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel have suddenly become a lot more exciting to clubs.

While it’s become commonplace to point to these non-signings as proof of MLB’s broken system of player compensation, I’m not actually buying it. Not that I’m disputing that there’s a serious issue, but I’d argue that the signings that are most problematic are when players like Ozzie Albies feel the need to take pennies on the dollar in their early twenties just so they can guarantee getting some of the win-related revenue they generate.

For free agents that aren’t elite contributors, I don’t think there’s any financial system that puts the genie in the bottle. Teams may not generally use straight WAR measures as unerring scripture, but they are more widely aware — even the teams run relatively poorly — of the limited impact of any one player. Mike Trout, as amazing as he is, isn’t the LeBron James of baseball, because the very design of the game itself prevents any one player from having as much of an impact on a team as LeBron or Steph Curry or James Harden or Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes.

The demands of the players matter as well. It was widely reported over the winter that Craig Kimbrel was looking for a contract worth over $100 million for six years. While you’ll never get these rumors backed up with ironclad verification, nobody I’ve talked to inside baseball about Kimbrel’s demands has done anything but accept that as his camp’s demands.

At his best, Kimbrel was possibly the most dominating reliever of this generation, arguably even better than Mariano Rivera at his best (remember, what made Mo special wasn’t just how good he was, but how good he was for two decades). Baseball’s system no doubt underpaid Kimbrel — and the system for cost-controlled player needs serious addressing — but the Yankees or Red Sox or Cardinals or whichever team signs him has no interest in “making up” missing dollars to him that the Braves didn’t have to pay.

While Kimbrel was a good closer in 2018, he wasn’t at his old levels of dominance. His walk rate ballooned in 2018 to 12.6% and his 2.74 ERA was helped by a career-low .216 BABIP. The ZiPS projections for Kimbrel in a neutral park (the ones you saw last winter for him in Boston) painted a picture of a solid closer, but not one who ought to be paid more than Kenley Jansen or Aroldis Chapman.

ZiPS Projections – Craig Kimbrel (Neutral Park)
2019 4 2 40 3.02 60 56.7 35 6 28 91 138 1.1 8.3 8.3
2020 3 2 40 2.92 55 52.3 32 6 26 85 142 1.1 8.6 16.9
2021 3 2 38 3.00 54 51.0 32 6 26 83 138 1.0 8.3 25.2
2022 3 2 38 2.91 49 46.3 29 5 23 76 142 1.0 8.4 33.7
2023 3 2 34 3.14 46 43.0 27 5 22 70 132 0.8 7.0 40.7
2024 3 1 30 3.20 42 39.3 25 5 21 64 130 0.7 6.4 47.0

Now, I suspect he got better offers than six years, $47 million, but I’d be shocked if any team thought he was worth more than $70-$80 million for six years. At least among the teams that have the wherewithal to pay retail for a closer.

ZiPS Projections – Dallas Keuchel (Neutral Park)
2019 12 9 0 3.86 30 182.0 182 19 53 141 111 3.2 23.8 23.8
2020 11 9 0 3.98 27 160.7 168 17 47 122 108 2.6 20.4 44.2
2021 10 9 0 4.10 27 158.0 168 18 48 117 105 2.4 19.4 63.6
2022 10 8 0 4.11 25 146.7 156 17 44 109 104 2.2 18.7 82.3
2023 9 8 0 4.24 23 136.0 146 16 42 101 101 1.8 16.6 98.8

Similarly, Keuchel won a Cy Young with the Houston Astros, who only paid him $524,500 for that season, and no suitors are willing to subsidize Houston’s bargain from 2015.

The draft picks complicate these matters, because the loss of the draft picks is absorbed by the players, not the teams, and the salaries will reflect (and have reflected this) that accordingly.

But now the fun part! With Keuchel and Kimbrel only costing money, teams are lining up. No, there are no secret deals out there just waiting for the draft to complete. MLB has made it clear in the past that they won’t tolerate any qualifying offer shenanigans, and as we all know, two can keep a secret if one of them is dead.

So let’s handicap the Keuchel and Kimbrel homes in broad strokes, for both team need and reality.

Dallas Keuchel

First Tier – Braves, Yankees, Cardinals

Mike Soroka and Max Fried have been terrific, but the Braves are in a dogfight, and an extra arm in the rotation on a three-month contract would put a higher floor on a young rotation, and the extra arm in the bullpen would be appreciated. The Braves are sitting on a lot of prospects, enough that they could trade for what they need instead, but a surprisingly quiet winter in terms of spending and long-term certainty with Albies and Ronald Acuña ought to make the team less likely to squeeze every penny.

The Yankees appear to have a lot of interest and they’re not above over-engineering their roster, something that bailed them out this season when the injuries piled up. I’m not sure it’s actually a necessary signing — ZiPS projects the Yankees rotation as the fourth-best in MLB right now — but a team that collects second basemen and has half-a-dozen closer-quality relievers probably isn’t bugged by an extra starting pitcher. This is especially true while James Paxton’s ailing knee is still proving a bother.

St. Louis may have the most need. Usually they blame their bullpen for their struggles, but the starting pitching has been dreadful as of late and the team’s already been over-reaching for starters from the minors, rushing Genesis Cabrera, an interesting prospect who was erratic in Triple-A.

Second Tier – Brewers, Padres, Twins, Red Sox

Neither the Brewers or Twins have big-ticket starting pitchers, but both ought to have a very real interest in the short-term and have the financial flexibility to make it happen if they desire. Milwaukee’s need may be most acute with Jimmy Nelson not a guarantee and Jhoulys Chacin and Gio Gonzalez currently injured. The Twins arguably have passed the point where Keuchel is even necessary, but he’s a nice-to-have in October and Minnesota’s payroll is lower than last year.

San Diego is just 1 1/2 games out of the wild card, so they’re very playoff relevant, and Keuchel is an upgrade over Nick Margevicius or Cal Quantrill, and I’ve thought there was a good fit here for a long time. With Keuchel open to one-year deals at this point, he’s an even better fit for a prospect-laden team like the Padres. Boston did next-to-nothing this winter and injuries have resulted in the team having to give starts to Hector Velazquez, Ryan Weber, and Josh Smith.

The Dark Horses – Rockies, Mets, Astros, Phillies, Cubs, Nationals

I think Kyle Freeland will be OK, but Tyler Anderson’s knee injury means that even in this case, the team will likely still have to count on Jeff Hoffman. The Rockies, as usual, could be doing better with their talent and money than they are, but I don’t expect them to go after Keuchel.

In a similar vein, we have the New York Mets. They showed little interest in signing a fifth starter before, and with Jason Vargas being shockingly adequate in his recent starts, I doubt they’ll show any more interest.

If a homecoming was possible, the Astros could have already done that without consequences, and they haven’t. The Phillies have given no indication of displeasure about the back of their rotation and the Cubs will probably continue to pretend there’s no money now that Yu Darvish’s command is slowly coming back. I put the Nationals fairly low here as I think they’ll be more interested in Kimbrel.

Craig Kimbrel

First Tier – Twins, Cubs, Braves, Nationals

The Twins go at the top here because I think the interest is strong, to the extent that there have been hints that they could go after both Kuechel and Kimbrel. If the Cubs are to drop the façade about their finances, Kimbrel fills the more pressing need in a bullpen that has been hindered by mediocrity and injury (ZiPS now has them as the No. 22 bullpen).

Washington’s need for bullpen help is a constant issue and signing Kimbrel would be superior to their usual tactic of giving away interesting relievers that the team gives up on in order to acquire short-term arms. The major hiccup for Washington is that it may be too little, too late at this point. Atlanta has the No. 24 bullpen by ZiPS (only one contender ranks worse), and as noted above, they have the financial resources to bring Kimbrel back to where he had his best run.

Second Tier – Brewers, Red Sox, Dodgers

At least Kimbrel’s good enough that you feel less bad about him being in the majors instead of Keston Hiura. The Brewers still have a top-10 bullpen and I think the need for a starter is more compelling.

Boston’s bullpen isn’t projected to stay where they are — they currently rank seventh in baseball in WAR — but as with Houston and Keuchel, if the team really wanted Kimbrel back, they probably could have already closed the deal if sufficiently motivated. It’s not as if the bullpen pitching better than expected makes the need more compelling, from their point-of-view, than in December.

I don’t actually think the Dodgers will sign Kimbrel, but take a team with a lot of money and a bullpen with a 4.71 ERA, and you can’t dismiss it out-of-hand.

The Dark Horses – Mets, Yankees, Phillies, Rangers, Rockies

The Mets have a real need for another bullpen arm, but given that Kimbrel is an official, proven closer, I’m not sure the Mets are aware that it’s actually legal to use him in the eighth inning. The Yankees don’t actually need another reliever, but that never stopped them before; do you not put a hotel on Baltic Avenue just because you have Boardwalk and Park Place?

Texas may be an out-there choice, but if the season ended today, they’d be the second wild card in the American League. I don’t think the team’s actually good, but costing them only money and easily being able to afford a money-only transaction, they could do it. Colorado could afford it and needs a reliever, but I’m not sure Kimbrel, with an active market, would be interested in a half-year in Coors Field before a second shot at what would likely be his last big contract.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Baron Samedi
3 years ago

oh i get it