With the draft just a few days away, it’s likely that free agents Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel will (finally) come off the board in the near future. Once the calendar flips from June 2 to June 3, clubs will no longer be forced to surrender a draft pick to sign either former All-Star.
Heading into the season and even early in the year, we looked at plenty of potential landing spots for both. But as the draft inched closer and the two remained unsigned, it became increasingly clear that they could try their hand at the 2014 Kendrys Morales gambit and sit out into June in order to open their market.
Now, not only are Kimbrel and Keuchel once again a relevant topic — they’re met with different markets than they encountered during Spring Training. With a third of the season in the books, teams have a better understanding of how they fit into their divisional and Wild Card landscapes. Injuries have altered the construction of rosters throughout the league. Some fits still make sense, just as much if not more than they did two or three months ago, but that’s not the case across the board. Trade possibilities are also beginning to take shape, creating new and different competition for these hurlers.
Let’s take a look at the most plausible on-paper fits for Kimbrel:
Teams with obvious offseason payroll limitations
The Pirates are in the mix in the NL Central, but I don’t think I need to expand upon the reasons that we won’t be seeing a free agent reliever with Kimbrel’s anticipated price tag land in Pittsburgh. The Indians are trying to claw back into the AL Central race and are right in the thick of the Wild Card picture, but they spent the winter cutting payroll. Kimbrel won’t be in the cards.
The Cubs could clearly use Kimbrel, but their offseason payroll constraints were clear. Maybe they saved some money for in-season moves, but it’s rare to dig through the couch cushions for change and pull out a hundred dollar bill. We’re barely three months past owner Tom Ricketts declaring he had no more money to spend, and even if the Cubs aren’t paying Ben Zobrist’s full salary (which isn’t fully clear), they’re near the second luxury tax bracket. From a roster perspective, the Cubs are a perfect fit, but it’d require a pretty sizable pivot from ownership.
May be close to their payroll limit
Back in the offseason I delved into why the Red Sox aren’t really a fit given the huge luxury tax hit that would accompany Kimbrel there. Those same luxury concerns are still present. Would the Wilpon family be willing to push the Mets’ payroll further into franchise-record territory than it already is (before even factoring in possible July trades)? It’s hard to envision. The Reds have had a great month to prevent themselves from falling out of the NL Central race after an awful start, but their payroll is already $25MM higher than last season’s and $11MM higher than it ever has been before. Even if they were to add to the payroll, the bullpen isn’t their most pressing area of concern. The Athletics didn’t necessarily spend a ton this winter, but they did spend enough to push their payroll to a franchise-record $92MM. Kimbrel would help them, particularly with Blake Treinen slipping a bit, but I’m not buying the A’s buying Kimbrel. I imagine the Cardinals to be in a similar boat, given their own record payroll. They’ve been bitten by most of their recent bullpen expenditures as well (Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, Greg Holland, Andrew Miller).
.500 clubs and fringe Wild Card teams
There’s a host of teams hovering around .500 and sitting within a stone’s throw of a Wild Card spot, but a more clear-cut divisional contender would have an easier time luring Kimbrel, who surely wants a shot at postseason redemption. You could make a case for any of the White Sox, Rangers, Angels, D-backs, Padres or Rockies, and there are indeed valid ways to see how he’d fit with some of those clubs, but it’s tough to classify any as a favorite.
Two months ago? Maybe! Now? Nope!
The Nationals, owners of an almost impossibly inept bullpen, get this category all to themselves. Kimbrel to the Nats was heavily rumored in spring but always felt like a bit of a stretch given that he’d push them back over the luxury tax for a third straight season. However, entering the year you could see why the Nationals might be willing to make that plunge. This was a team designed to contend in what was expected to be an ultra-competitive division, after all. Fast forward to the end of May, and the Nats sit eight games below .500 with a nine-game deficit in the NL East. Kimbrel alone isn’t fixing a bullpen ERA that somehow begins with the number 7. And, if you’re Kimbrel, do you really want to sign with a team that’s closer to the last-place Marlins than to a Wild Card spot?
Do they even need him?
Of course every bullpen can technically use a reliever of Kimbrel’s caliber, but he’s more a luxury for some contenders than others. The Yankees don’t need bullpen help even with Dellin Betances still sidelined and Chad Green doing very-non-Chad-Green things. Kimbrel would strengthen a strength and set them up for another deadly postseason relief corps, and the Yankees can afford him. The rotation is a greater need, though (cough cough Dallas Keuchel). Given that the Yankees will pay a 32 percent tax on any dollar they spend on a free agent at this point, they seem likelier to spend on needs than luxuries.
The luxury tax point doesn’t apply to the Astros, but the Houston ’pen leads the Majors in ERA, FIP and xFIP. They’ve had some infield injuries and hiccups at the back of the rotation, so they have greater needs. Houston is already near a record level payroll and is reasonably close ($17MM) to the luxury tax line. Adding Kimbrel would limit their future maneuverability if ownership prefers to stay south of that line.
The best fits (listed alphabetically)
- Braves: Fans in Atlanta have been pleading for the front office to add Kimbrel for months, and the fit is more logical than ever. Closer Arodys Vizcaino was lost for the season while the majority of the arms on which the Braves leaned in 2018 have struggled through poor seasons. Dan Winkler’s ERA is north of 6.00. Shane Carle is in Triple-A. Jesse Biddle is now a Mariner. Atlanta’s most consistent reliever has been Luke Jackson, whom they outrighted off the 40-man roster on three different occasions in 2018. Currently, the Braves hold the second Wild Card spot in the NL and are three games back of the division-leading Phillies. General manager Alex Anthopoulos famously talked about the “flexibility” they had after going the bargain route in right field by re-signing Nick Markakis, but they’ve yet to actually take advantage of that payroll space.
- Brewers: It’s possible that the Brewers should be included in the previous “close to their payroll limit” section, but they were linked to Kimbrel frequently late in Spring Training. Milwaukee’s payroll is at $122MM, which isn’t much relative to other clubs but is $18MM more than the Brewers had spent on a single season prior to 2019. The bullpen hasn’t been the same juggernaut it was last season, in part due to the loss of Corey Knebel for the season (Tommy John surgery). A Kimbrel/Josh Hader/Jeremy Jeffress trio in the late innings sounds formidable, to be sure. The question is whether the Brewers would be willing to push an already record payroll to the point where they’d outbid the rest of the field.
- Dodgers: With the exception of Kenley Jansen, the Andrew Friedman-led Dodgers just haven’t spent at the top of the market at any position in free agency. That said, his price has to be down from the offseason, and the winter pickup of Joe Kelly hasn’t panned out, thus leaving L.A. with a mediocre relief corps. They’d likely pay a 20 percent luxury tax on some of the money it’d take to land Kimbrel. A team with pockets this deep and a pedestrian bullpen makes the fit logical in a vacuum, even if context suggests that it’s not likely.
- Phillies: Like the Braves, the Phillies have been one of the longest-mentioned fits for Kimbrel. The need for a high-end reliever in Philadelphia might be greater now than at any point over the past caliber year; as we explored recently, the Phillies have nearly an entire bullpen’s worth of quality relievers on the injured list. A resurgent Hector Neris and sophomore Seranthony Dominguez are leading the charge in the late innings, but there’s certainly room to add Kimbrel to this injury-ravaged relief unit. That said, there are still indications that Philly is only interested in Kimbrel on a one-year deal, and that’s probably not going to cut it.
- Rays: Winners of six straight games and owners of MLB’s third-best run differential, the Rays have been one of the game’s best overall teams through the end of May. They’re a half game behind the Yankees in the AL East and are firmly in control of the top AL Wild Card spot as of this writing. Payroll concerns are always going to dominate discussions regarding the Rays, but they entered the year at just $60MM in payroll — one year after they opened the season at $76MM. Those sums may induce laughter from fans of big-market clubs, but the 2019 Rays roster is no joke. When they’re in this close a race with the Yankees for the division crown, every win is vital. The difference between a Wild Card play-in and a guaranteed ALDS berth is monumental, and Kimbrel should help them keep pace.
- Twins: Minnesota managed to reduce its payroll while still adding the likes of Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez and Jonathan Schoop — Joe Mauer’s retirement and the expiration of Ervin Santana’s contract helped — which set them up as a credible threat to the Indians. They’ve been more than a credible threat, though, racing out to one of the best records in baseball and opening an enormous 10-game lead in the AL Central. Adding Kimbrel would push the Twins to a new franchise-record payroll, but not by that much; for a team that is now selling out Target Field after years of futility (excepting their 2017 Wild Card run), there’s every reason to make an aggressive move. Back in January, chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and GM Thad Levine spoke of “investing appropriately” and “striking” while the window is “wide open.” Whether Kimbrel is the “appropriate” investment is up to their discretion, but it’s hard to imagine a more open window than a 10-game lead in a division with three rebuilding clubs.