11:07pm: Kimbrel to the Nats is “further down the road” than reports have indicated, ESPN’s Keith Law tweets.
3:06pm: Though even the biggest-spending MLB franchises routinely bow out of a tit for tat vis-á-vis high-impact rival moves, it appears the Nationals, who Thursday lost star OF Bryce Harper to the hard-charging Phillies, may be poised to strike the next blow. The team has “maintained interest” in free agent reliever Craig Kimbrel, per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, who notes that the club “might be willing” to dish out a long-term deal for the righty.
It’s about time for the noise to crank on the market for the star closer, who’s been listening to mostly muffled sounds for months now. Per Rosenthal, the Braves are also “exploring” Kimbrel, 31 in May, but still holding firm to the short-term pact they’ve long desired. Offers and specified durations and dollar amounts are still in the dark, but the urgency to a strike a deal with the flamethrower, especially for teams in the stacked NL East, has now heightened substantially.
The Nationals, per Roster Resource, sit just $4.5MM below the $206MM luxury-tax threshold – which, if eclipsed by the team for the third consecutive season, would require them to pay a 50% tax on every dollar they spend over the limit – and would almost certainly lose their third- and sixth-round draft picks if they were to sign Kimbrel (the team already lost its second- and fifth-rounders after November’s signing of Patrick Corbin). Still, none of it seems an impediment – the club is now just a win or so behind the Phillies in most projected models, and could immediately close the gap with the inking of Kimbrel, who’d almost certainly represent a 1.5-2 win upgrade over any of the gaggle of green arms competing for jobs at the back end of the Nats’ bullpen.
Kimbrel’s 2018 season was arguably his worst – he set career-lows in HR/9 and GB% and walked 4.48 men per nine – but still a top-10 reliever season in the more-difficult American League. Three times the righty has bettered the 3-win mark for a reliever, a staggering stat indeed, and his 19.0 career fWAR already ranks fifth all-time in the three-out era of the modern closer.
The back end of the Nats pen, which features an again-dominant Sean Doolittle at its core, is thin: Trevor Rosenthal returns from Tommy John and is a major question mark, Koda Glover is again hampered by arm issues, and Kyle Barraclough, shipped early on to Washington for international bonus pool money, can’t be counted on to throw strikes. The team doesn’t feature a potential fast-riser, like Philly did last season with Seranthony Dominguez, and the remainder of the bargain bullpen pickups don’t strike fear in any hearts. Kimbrel, though, has, and does, and would.