Teams that have spoken to Craig Kimbrel’s camp early in the offseason have been told that the right-hander “is looking for a six-year deal,” tweets ESPN’s Buster Olney. It’s likely that there’s some degree of tactical negotiating at play here; free agents will always set out seeking a sum larger than the one they perhaps hope to find, and a six-year pact for Kimbrel would be precedent-setting.
At 30 years of age, Kimbrel is already older than both Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman were when they signed their five-year contracts worth $80MM and $86MM, respectively. Those are the two largest deals for any reliever in MLB history, and Kimbrel is presumably aiming to topple both. His ability to do so, of course, is far from a certainty. Though he comes with as much name value as any reliever in the game, Kimbrel had already displayed some red flags in 2018 even before struggling in the postseason.
Through 62 1/3 regular-season innings in 2018, Kimbrel posted a 2.74 ERA which, while strong, was the second-highest of his career. Few clubs place much of an emphasis on that figure in today’s game, but Kimbrel also saw his walk rate spike to 12.6 percent, the second-highest full-season mark of his career. Beyond that, Kimbrel also averaged a home run per nine innings pitched for the first time and turned in a career-worst 3.13 FIP.
Unfortunately for Kimbrel, his most pronounced struggles came under the national spotlight of the 2018 postseason. He surrendered runs in five of his nine playoff outings, issuing eight walks and hitting another two batters in just 10 2/3 innings of total work. It’s worth noting that he’d allowed all of two earned runs in 10 postseason innings coming into the 2018 season, but his late struggles didn’t leave a favorable final impression.
All of this, to some extent, is a matter of splitting hairs. The 2018 version of Kimbrel wasn’t the superhuman entity that Red Sox fans enjoyed in 2017, but Kimbrel was still one of the game’s top relievers. His 97.1 mph average fastball velocity is a dead match for his career mark in that regard, and his 17.2 percent swinging-strike rate was actually an improvement over his 16.5 percent career mark. He ranked sixth among 151 qualified relievers in overall strikeout percentage, fifth in swinging-strike rate and 12th in K%-BB%. A control issue was his primary downfall in 2018, evidenced not only by the increased walk rate but by the decreased first-pitch strike rate and overall percentage of pitches he threw in the strike zone.
As for the postseason difficulties, those are hardly a death knell for Kimbrel’s free-agent stock. Yu Darvish, for instance, landed a $126MM guarantee last winter on the heels of some of his own World Series struggles, and the opposite effect (or lack thereof) can hold equally true; speculation that Daniel Murphy had emphatically bolstered his free-agent stock with his 2015 postseason heroics never manifested into reality. He signed a three-year, $37.5MM deal with the Nationals that was generally in line with pre-October expectations.
As for the six-year ask, that could well be a ploy to get down to a more realistic target of five years or even four at a record-setting average annual value — Wade Davis’ $17.33MM mark currently holds that distinction — which is generally where most projections have pegged Kimbrel this winter. We at MLBTR predicted a four-year, $70MM deal for Kimbrel, which would fall shy of the overall record guarantee for a reliever but would set a new high-water mark in terms of AAV at $17.5MM. Kimbrel already rejected a qualifying offer that would’ve paid him $17.9MM in 2019. As such, any team that signs him will face draft pick and/or international pool forfeitures (the specifics of which can be seen here).