Possessing an excellent closer is one of the many things the Yankees have become known for over the years. There was Dave Righetti, Goose Gossage and Sparky Lyle decades back. And then there was John Wetteland, who was on the mound when the Yankees won the World Series in 1996. He formed a dominant late-game tandem with Mariano Rivera, who soon became the Yankees’ closer and evolved into perhaps the greatest reliever ever – someone who consistently shut opposing offenses down for almost 20 years. Now, the Yankees have yet another game-ending force in Aroldis Chapman, a two-time member of the team since it first acquired him in December 2015. But months before the Yankees swung a trade for Chapman, they went after another of the top closers in history in Craig Kimbrel.
Leading up to the trade deadline on July 31, 2015, the Yankees were said to be among the teams in hottest pursuit of Kimbrel, then a member of the Padres. New York held a six-game lead in the American League East at that point, thanks in part to the wonderful work of relievers Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Justin Wilson, but it wanted yet another bullpen weapon in Kimbrel. Then 27 years old, Kimbrel was fresh off an all-world run with Atlanta and in his first season in San Diego.
The Padres landed Kimbrel the previous offseason with the goal of pushing for contention, but the team instead endured more struggles. That wasn’t the fault of Kimbrel, who enjoyed yet another fine season. Despite interest from teams like the Yankees – who were reportedly unwilling to trade then-prospects Luis Severino, Aaron Judge and Greg Bird for the reliever – Kimbrel wound up spending that entire year with the Padres. They went on to win just 77 games, while the Yankees lost their division lead to the Blue Jays after the deadline and were ultimately knocked out of the wild-card round by the Astros (another team that looked into Kimbrel before the deadline).
The fact that the Kimbrel talks between the Yankees and Padres fell apart turned out to have a major impact on those two teams and more clubs. In November 2015, the Padres found a taker for Kimbrel in the Yankees’ hated rival, the Red Sox, who got him for a prospect package consisting of outfielder Manuel Margot, shortstop Javier Guerra, infielder Carlos Asuaje and lefty Logan Allen. Nobody from that group has made a significant on-field impact for the Padres (the jury’s out on Guerra, who’s now a reliever), but they did flip Margot for an outstanding bullpen arm in Emilio Pagan this past offseason. Prior to then, the Padres shipped Allen to the Indians last summer as part of a three-team trade that netted them high-end outfield prospect Taylor Trammell.
For their part, it’s fair to say the Red Sox would make the Kimbrel trade again. He was an integral part of their bullpen from 2016-18, all of which were playoff seasons and the last of which ended in the club’s most recent World Series championship. The Red Sox bettered the Yankees in each of those regular seasons with three straight AL East titles, but they elected to let Kimbrel (now a Cub) exit via free agency in 2019.
Speaking of the Cubs, they’re another team that has felt some impact from the Kimbrel non-trade between the Padres and Yankees. Having failed to reel in Kimbrel, the Yankees picked up Chapman from the Reds in December 2015. Chapman didn’t cost the Yankees that much (second baseman Tony Renda and righties Rookie Davis and Caleb Cotham) because he was facing domestic violence allegations at the time. He served a 30-game suspension for that to begin the 2016 campaign. Then, with the Yankees not looking like a real threat to compete for a title, they sent Chapman to the Cubs in a deal for Gleyber Torres around that summer’s deadline.
Four years later, Torres is a standout middle infielder and an irreplaceable member of the Yankees’ lineup. He’s missed in Chicago, but Chapman did help them to their first World Series in 108 years a few months after they acquired him. As the saying goes, flags fly forever. Chapman returned to the Yankees in free agency during the ensuing offseason, though. And Kimbrel’s now a member of the Cubs, who signed him to a three-year, $43MM contract that hasn’t gone their way thus far. Where would he and Chapman be right now had the Yankees traded for Kimbrel a half-decade ago? Nobody can say for sure, but it’s one of the many interesting questions to ponder in this what-if scenario.