As we head into the month of December, the weather outside gets colder, but the MLB Hot Stove is just starting to heat up. The Seattle Mariners have already kicked things off in a big way, dealing away All-Stars Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, and Jean Segura.
The trade market, as well as the free agent market, will inevitably heat up even more as we inch closer and closer to the Winter Meetings, which take place December 9-13 in Las Vegas. The two biggest free agents on the market, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, will command a majority of the attention among MLB executives next week, but there are other notable players looking for new homes for the 2019 season.
One of those players is former Red Sox closer, and now World Series champion, Craig Kimbrel. The 30-year-old closer is coming off a 2018 campaign that saw him notch 42 saves with Boston to go along with 96 strikeouts in 62.1 innings pitched. Kimbrel’s career numbers are even more impressive, as he boasts a minuscule 1.91 ERA with 333 saves and 868 strikeouts.
According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, Kimbrel is seeking a six-year deal this offseason.
A contract of this magnitude could make Kimbrel one of the highest-paid relievers in all of baseball, if not the highest. Right now, Aroldis Chapman of the New York Yankees has the richest contract for a closer, earning $88 million over a five-year deal. Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers is up there as well, earning $80 million over five years.
Kimbrel will likely be looking for less money per year than Chapman and Jansen, but the length of the contract combined with potential incentives could make him an extremely expensive commodity on the free agent market. He will also have to contend with his counterparts such as Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, and David Robertson, who will appeal to many teams as cheaper alternatives for the closer position.
The bigger problem facing Kimbrel and his rumored demands is the simple but hard truth for him to swallow: closers are not valued the same way in 2018 as they were several years ago. There was a time when paying through the nose for a closing pitcher was commonplace. Now, however, the closer position is viewed much differently, particularly due to the way bullpens are being constructed throughout the league.
Many teams now are focusing their efforts, as well as their budgets, towards pitchers who can work in the seventh and eighth innings of games in order to establish an effective bridge to the closer in the ninth inning. After all, why blow the bank on a high-profile closer if the rest of your team’s bullpen can’t hold a lead for him anyway?
The 2015 World Series champion Kansas City Royals are the perfect case study for the way teams are looking to construct their bullpens now. The Royals were able to clamp down on their opponents late in the game due to a fearsome bullpen consisting of relievers such as Ryan Madson, Franklin Morales, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, and Greg Holland. All the Royals had to do was make sure they were ahead by the sixth inning and then hand the game over to their bullpen. While Holland was the team’s labeled “closer,” its bullpen was made up of a handful of quality pitchers who could all close out the game in the ninth inning if and when called upon.
Fast-forward to the 2018 offseason, and teams across the league are still modeling their bullpens after the 2015 Royals. Hence, it will be difficult for a pitcher like Kimbrel to land a six-year contract with any team that is looking for a balanced bullpen. Kimbrel is also coming off a season that saw his strikeout numbers go down and his ERA go up. Additionally, Kimbrel struggled for the Red Sox during their postseason run, posting a cumulative 6.18 ERA on the way to the team’s World Series victory. His overall postseason numbers are not strong, either, as he holds a 3.92 ERA over eight total playoff series, which will also detract from his overall value.
The market is drastically different now than it was several years ago, due to the increased reliance on analytics, as well as the introduction of new, innovative thought pertaining to the construction of pitching staffs. Thus, it would behoove Kimbrel to reexamine his contract demands before the Winter Meetings commence next week.