Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos “made it clear” Sunday that they have legitimate interest in free-agent pitchers Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel, according to Jim Bowden of SiriusXM. Unsurprisingly, though, the Braves don’t seem inclined to sign Kimbrel or Keuchel until the June 3 draft, at which point a team would not have to surrender a pick for either of the two qualifying offer recipients.
Given their outstanding track records in the majors, Kimbrel and Keuchel entered free agency in November as two of the highest-ranked players available. High-paying, long-term contracts looked likely for both players at the time, but seven months later, they remain without teams. That probably won’t be the case for much longer considering the soon-to-expire draft pick ramifications, however.
For the Braves, the interest in Kimbrel is particularly notable. The right-hander was a 2008 draftee of the Braves, who took him in the third round and then saw him develop into one of the best picks in franchise history. Now one of the greatest relievers ever, Kimbrel spent 2010-14 with Atlanta, for which he pitched to a near-spotless 1.43 ERA/1.52 FIP with 14.82 K/9 against 3.36 BB/9 and piled up 186 saves over 289 innings. The Braves then ended their relationship with Kimbrel when they traded him to the Padres in April 2015. Kimbrel, now 31, moved on to the Red Sox via trade in 2016 and remained a formidable late-game force with the club through 2018, though he wasn’t as effective last season after an otherworldly showing in 2017.
On paper, Kimbrel would be an enormous pickup for an Atlanta team whose bullpen has fallen short this season. Their relief unit ranks 22nd in the majors in ERA and 27th in walks per nine innings, though current closer Luke Jackson, Touki Toussaint, Sean Newcomb and Jacob Webb have been good to great. Otherwise, the Braves have shuffled through several veterans who are far less inspiring than Kimbrel. Arodys Vizcaino, Jesse Biddle and Jonny Venters – all of whom are now out of the organization – as well as Josh Tomlin, the just-acquired Anthony Swarzak and Jerry Blevins are among familiar names the Braves have turned to in search of solutions.
The Braves’ rotation has been better than their bullpen, ranking 10th in ERA and 18th in fWAR, but the club seems to believe there’s ample room for improvement. They could look to Keuchel, a 31-year-old southpaw who’s a former AL Cy Young winner (2015), for help. The ex-Astro would be the most established starter on Atlanta’s staff, but he’d have a hard time topping the marvelous production Mike Soroka and Max Fried have put forth. Kevin Gausman and Julio Teheran have been useful in their own right, but the Braves have otherwise struggled to find a capable fifth member for their rotation. Mike Foltynewicz entered 2019 off what looked like a breakout season, but he has been a weak link so far. Newcomb, Toussaint, Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson have also had difficulty over a combined eight starts.
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that no one knows when Kimbrel or Keuchel will be ready to help a team. Even if they sign within the next week, they’ll likely need time to prepare to join their next club(s). Beyond that, there’s the key matter of how much they’ll cost. That may be of especially great import to the Braves, whose payroll has left fans upset this season. They opened 2018 with an $118MM-plus outlay, but despite winning the NL East last season, they’re now in the $115MM range. What’s more, back in February, neither Anthopoulos nor Braves CEO Terry McGuirk seemed too enthusiastic about distributing a big, multiyear contract. However, McGuirk did note, “We still have an appreciable amount of dry powder ready to go.”