On its very surface, the fact that Craig Kimbrel remains unsigned sounds ridiculous. He’s on a Hall of Fame trajectory and leads all active relievers in saves (333). The only pitcher in MLB history (min. 200 innings) with a higher strikeout percentage than Kimbrel’s 41.6 percent mark is Aroldis Chapman … at 41.7 percent. A full season of ninth-inning work could push Kimbrel past Jeff Reardon (10th place, 367 saves) and Jonathan Papelbon (ninth place, 368 saves) on the All-Time saves leaderboard. Kimbrel has a career 1.91 ERA and a near-identical 1.96 FIP. He’s a seven-time All-Star who has yet to celebrate his 31st birthday, which lands on May 28.
Before anyone accuses me of trying to do his agent’s job for him, let’s make it clear that with further context, there are some easily identifiable reasons that Kimbrel is still available. Reports early in the offseason suggested that Kimbrel was eyeing a contract as long as six years and north of $100MM. It’s a staggering sum that no reliever has ever touched (or come all that close to reaching). Teams are increasingly reluctant to pay players into their mid-30s and sign contracts of that length in general — only Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Patrick Corbin have secured deals of even five years this winter — and it’s not as if Kimbrel isn’t without his warts.
First and foremost, he’ll cost any new club a draft pick and potentially international bonus pool space (more details on that) after rejecting a qualifying offer in November. Even looking past his shaky postseason, Kimbrel saw his strikeout, walk, home-run, ground-ball and swinging-strike rates all trend in the wrong direction in 2018. Those declines are being judged against a lofty bar, of course, as 2017 was one of Kimbrel’s best seasons, and his overall standards are higher than those of almost any reliever to ever take the mound.
Even a diminished Kimbrel is an elite reliever, but teams are going to pay him based on what they expect him to do moving forward — not based on what he’s already done — and given those red flags, it’s not exactly a surprise that teams weren’t lined up to give him a record guarantee. Even at the outset of free agency, we at MLBTR predicted that while Kimbrel would set a new high-water mark for average annual value among relievers (four years, $70MM), he would fall well shy of Chapman’s record-setting $86MM guarantee.
That no longer seems to be plausible, however. Perhaps there’ll be a surprising dark horse to emerge and stun the field, but the market for Kimbrel looks remarkably tepid. The teams most recently connected to him — the Braves, Phillies and Twins — are all reported to be interested in a short-term pact. Even among that trio, the Braves’ interest in Kimbrel is reported by Joel Sherman of the New York Post to be “overstated.” Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos has plainly said that he does not foresee spending “big, elite dollars” on a reliever. Red Sox president of baseaball operations Dave Dombrowski has spelled out, without directly saying it, that Kimbrel will not be back. (As I explored last month, Boston’s luxury tax situation would force them to pay a jaw-dropping sum for Kimbrel in 2019.)
We’ve reached the point of the offseason where it’s begun to be suggested that Kimbrel should take a one-year deal at a precedent-setting salary. Sherman, in his aforementioned column, opines that the Dodgers should take that plunge and offer Kimbrel a $25MM salary to come to Los Angeles. Sherman surmises that the Dodgers were willing to exceed the luxury tax for a huge splash on Harper and could take the same approach with Kimbrel on a smaller scale.
Certainly, the Dodgers could afford such a move. Pairing Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen at the back end of games would give L.A. one of the most formidable duos the game has ever seen, even when accounting for the fact that both have demonstrated some potential signs of decline. The Dodgers currently have a luxury tax payroll of just over $201MM, as calculated by Jason Martinez of Roster Resource, and they’re in the process of shaving that further after designating Josh Fields. A hypothetical $25MM outlay on Kimbrel seems steep; after luxury taxes, the Dodgers would actually owe him closer to $28.7MM at that point. Still, there’s little question the Los Angeles club could afford a record annual salary with a more modest luxury hit and more modest overall commitment on a one- or two-year deal.
With that in mind, let’s run through some speculative landing spots for the one of the game’s most decorated relievers. I’ll break this into various categories based on teams’ current luxury tax standing. It’s safe to assume that we can rule out every non-contender on a short-term deal, given that Kimbrel would require draft forfeitures. Despite the fact that the Padres signed Machado and that the White Sox pursued both Machado and Harper, I’m including them in that category. San Diego’s addition of Machado appears more focused on 2020 than 2019, while the ChiSox still don’t seem like viable AL Central threats. Both appear unlikely to weaken their 2019 draft for a short-term bullpen addition.
Similarly, expected contenders like the Indians, Cubs and Red Sox won’t be considered further below given that they’ve each made their offseason financial constraints well known (all payroll and luxury tax projections to follow are courtesy of Jason over at Roster Resource):
Teams that could sign Kimbrel while comfortably staying under the luxury line
- Braves: Atlanta fans have spent the offseason understandably urging the front office to do more. Braves CEO Terry McGuirk spoke openly of the team’s payroll flexibility before the offseason began, giving some fans grand expectations of the moves that’d follow up a meteoric rise to the top of the NL East. Atlanta spent big on Josh Donaldson in November but has since spent a combined $8MM to bring Brian McCann and Nick Markakis back into the fold. The Braves started with a bang but are ending their winter with a whimper. They’re currently sitting on a $118MM payroll and a $126MM luxury ledger after starting the season with a $123MM payroll as recently as 2017. The club’s top execs have tried to defend that position, though the explanations arguably fall somewhat flat. Frankly, if the Braves’ interest in their former star closer has indeed been overstated, that probably shouldn’t be the case.
- Brewers: Milwaukee has been willing to make one-year splashes for both Yasmani Grandal ($18.25MM) and Mike Moustakas ($10MM). Kimbrel on a one- or two-year deal would likely require at least a comparable annual commitment to Grandal. The bullpen is already a strength for the Brewers, although there’s some spring concern regarding Jeremy Jeffress’ shoulder. The Brew Crew’s 2018 payroll is at $127MM, but it’s $147MM when tabulated for luxury purposes. Both are already well into franchise-record territory, so one more splash from owner Mark Attanasio would be a surprise, admittedly.
- Cardinals: St. Louis has a projected Opening Day payroll of nearly $162MM, which would top last year’s record-setting $159MM Opening Day mark. Their current payroll for purposes of the luxury tax rests at roughly $167MM, which wouldn’t come close to the tax line upon signing Kimbrel, but ownership would nonetheless need to shatter its previous record level of spending to sign him. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak has implied that this type of signing isn’t likely, citing last year’s late addition of Greg Holland as a cautionary tale.
- Reds: Cincinnati has done all of its offseason work on the trade market, adding Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp. Those acquisitions have boosted this year’s projected Opening Day payroll to just north of $125MM — a franchise record — while pushing their luxury ledger to roughly $143MM. They’re in a similar spot to their divisional foes in St. Louis and Milwaukee; adding Kimbrel wouldn’t put them anywhere close to luxury territory but would require an unprecedented level of spending from an ownership group that is already spending at a record level. It doesn’t seem likely.
- Rockies: The Rox spent more than $100MM total dollars on relievers in the 2017-18 offseason and came away with little to show for it. Deals for Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee look regrettable, while Wade Davis wasn’t as sharp as he was in his walk year. Colorado’s payroll of roughly $149MM and luxury bill of about $168MM could both technically support Kimbrel, but perhaps the Rockies are wary of making further additions to an extremely expensive bullpen.
- Twins: Minnesota’s payroll is still about $5MM shy of last year’s franchise-record $128.7MM, though for tax purposes their payroll hovers around $138MM. Minnesota has been at least loosely tied to Kimbrel on a one-year arrangement, though like the Cardinals, they had a bad experience when it came to signing players midway through camp last winter (Lance Lynn, Logan Morrison). That said, the team’s farm is among the highest-regarded in the game, which mitigates some of the detriment of the lost draft pick. And the division-rival Indians are quite arguably a worse club now than they were in November, which could provide extra incentive to make one final splash of note.
Perennial payroll cellar-dwellers like the Athletics, Pirates and Rays all have their sights set on competing in 2019 and, obviously, none of the bunch is even in the same hemisphere as the luxury tax barrier. That said, it’s difficult to forecast any of these teams paying a potential record-setting salary to a reliever, even on a short-term deal. Tampa Bay did surprise with its two-year, $30MM addition of Charlie Morton, but it’s hard to see the Rays being willing to punt a draft pick given the organizational emphasis on cultivating a deep farm system as a means of offsetting their annual budgetary restrictions. Several of the teams on the list above seem like long shots, but even that distinction feels aggressive for this trio.
Teams that may be able to narrowly avoid the luxury tax upon signing Kimbrel
- Angels: The Halos are already projected to spend a franchise-record $174MM on payroll — which works out to about $173MM as calculated for luxury tax purposes. But there’s far more room beneath the luxury line next year; the Halos have about $67MM less committed then than they do at present. If ownership wanted to green-light a more drastic payroll hike, the Halos could conceivably add Kimbrel at a premium rate on a multi-year deal. Doing so wouldn’t leave much wiggle room for in-season additions, but in terms of plausible on-paper fits, the Angels make sense.
- Astros: Houston fits into this category by the skin of its teeth, as their current luxury payroll is at $186MM (though their actual 2019 payroll, $159MM, is nearly identical to last year’s $160MM mark). Signing Kimbrel would leave the Astros virtually no in-season maneuverability unless owner Jim Crane authorized crossing the luxury barrier. Houston is reportedly talking about a reunion with Dallas Keuchel, so the ’Stros clearly aren’t closed off to a high-profile addition.
- Mets: Brodie Van Wagenen’s inaugural offseason as GM hasn’t lacked for bravado, big talk or action. The Mets added Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Jeurys Familia, Wilson Ramos, Jed Lowrie and Justin Wilson already, skyrocketing their payroll for luxury purposes to $183MM. Their actual payroll is much lower once factoring for insurance claims on David Wright and Yoenis Cespedes. The Wilpon family isn’t exactly known for spending like they play in the game’s largest market, however, and as is the case with the Astros, adding Kimbrel would leave extremely minimal room for in-season trades without surpassing the luxury barrier. Of the three teams in this category, I’d be most surprised to see the Mets land Kimbrel.
Teams that could sign Kimbrel if they’re willing to pay the luxury tax
- Dodgers: As noted above, the Dodgers can afford it — but only if they’re willing to make the same luxury tax exception for Kimbrel they were willing to make for Harper.
- Nationals: It’s a very similar story with the Nationals, who were tied to Harper throughout the winter and reportedly viewed him as an exception to the luxury tax. The Nats are only a few million shy of $206MM in that regard and would soar past that threshold upon signing Kimbrel. Coupled with the fact that the organization hopes to extend Anthony Rendon, it seems difficult to envision Kimbrel landing in D.C. despite their reported interest. The Nationals, after all, would be a third-time luxury offender, meaning they’d pay a massive 50 percent tax on the first $20MM by which they exceed the initial limit and a 62 percent tax on the following $20MM. It’s extremely difficult to envision a Kimbrel signing and a Rendon extension coexisting.
- Phillies: Even after signing Harper, the Phillies’ projected $163MM Opening Day payroll isn’t particularly close to its club-record payrol of nearly $178MM from back in 2014. Kimbrel would assuredly push them over the luxury barrier, as the Phils currently rest at about $191MM in that regard. By signing Harper, owner John Middleton eventually satiated a fanbase he’d sent into a ravenous frenzy with his “stupid money” comments, but the question for the Phillies now becomes: do they have one final move up their sleeve? Their interest in Kimbrel has reportedly been on a short-term deal. They can definitely accommodate him at anything from one to three years.
- Yankees: This list has (obviously) been structured in mere alphabetical order, but it almost feels fitting to save the “Evil Empire” for last. The Yankees don’t operate like they did in George Steinbrenner’s heyday, but the team still carries a reputation for swooping in, and they clearly have the resources to pull off this type of feat. That said, it still seems highly unlikely. New York’s already at $226MM in payroll for tax purposes, meaning they’ve topped the initial threshold by $20MM and entered the second tax bracket. They’ll pay a 32 percent surcharge on any dollar added to the payroll moving forward, meaning even if they tried to persuade Kimbrel at, say, one year and $18MM, he’d actually cost them about $23.76MM. Coupled with the draft and international forfeitures they’d face — to say nothing of an already extraordinarily deep bullpen — it feels safe to say that the Yankees technically *can* do it but quite likely will not.
So where does that leave Kimbrel, in the end? The best fits seem like those that have a clear opportunity at a division title and aren’t already sporting franchise-record payrolls or perilously large luxury-tax ledgers. From my vantage point, the Braves, Twins, Dodgers, Phillies, Brewers and Mets have the best blends of divisional aspirations and payroll capacity to make this type of match work. It’d take some owners pushing past their comfort zones and Kimbrel accepting that the mega-deal he sought may not ultimately materialize, but any of those clubs would be justified in offering the compromise in terms of annual value on a short-term arrangement.