There are two types of Craig Kimbrel. The first being a former National League Rookie of the Year who controls the late parts of games with a menacing 99 mph fastball and a wipeout power curveball, a pitch that has earned him seven All-Star Game appearances and 333 career saves — which is fourth all-time — at just 30 years old.
The second is a closer infamously dubbed “Cardiac Craig,” a guy whose fastball flies over and through the glove of his catcher for many wild pitches in high leverage situations, who walks far too many batters in the postseason compared to his regular season stats, and who has fans covering their eyes in the ninth inning of high-stakes contests.
When Kimbrel, whose Boston Red Sox won the 2018 World Series, hit free agency this offseason, fans around Major League Baseball expected the right-hander to be a hot commodity and not on the market for long. Instead, it’s almost February, and the man who was ranked as the top free agent reliever and the fifth-best free agent overall by MLB.com is still unsigned.
Fans and analysts see him as the first type of Kimbrel, the one deserving of a high-priced long-term contract from a World Series contender. Besides, Kimbrel had another top-notch season in 2018, going 5-1 with a 2.70 ERA, 42 saves, and 96 strikeouts in 62.1 innings (13.9 strikeouts per inning). This helps pad Kimbrel’s career stats, including his minuscule 1.91 career ERA and 1.96 fielding independent pitching.Craig Kimbrel is one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. One of the 30 @MLB teams should just go ahead and pay the dude, @bytomdorsa writes.Click To Tweet
Owners and general managers apparently only see the second type of Kimbrel, whose 2018 postseason stats (10.2 innings, nine hits, a 5.91 ERA, eight walks, a pair of home runs, and six really, really intense save conversions) are so far out of line with his career regular season stats that Yu Darvish‘s 2017 World Series performance doesn’t look all that bad.
But like most of the 2018-19 MLB offseason, it makes no sense. A pitcher with more saves than any active player hitting free agency with many more productive years remaining in his right arm (again, he is only 30) is still unsigned despite the emergence of a top-heavy MLB environment with bullpen depth being as important as ever.
First off, the market for elite relievers has been extremely rewarding, as of late. Aroldis Chapman (five-year, $86 million deal from the New York Yankees), Kenley Jansen (five-year, $80 million deal from the Los Angeles Dodgers), Mark Melancon (four-year, $62 million deal from the San Francisco Giants), and Wade Davis (three-year, $52 million deal from the Colorado Rockies) have all signed high-priced contracts over the last few years.
Secondly, hoarding elite relievers has become increasingly important over the last decade or so in MLB. The Oakland Athletics won 97 games and earned an American League Wild Card Game berth in 2018 with only two pitchers starting more than 20 games; the Milwaukee Brewers were a game away from winning the NL pennant with only three such pitchers and significantly more innings pitched by relievers (60.1), than starters (23).
Third, even if Kimbrel falls apart later in his career and “Cardiac Craig” mode takes over as he progresses into the later stages of his life in the majors, he can be a serviceable set-up man, if not a middling closer for a decent team. Although Kimbrel heavily relies on his fastball and power curve, his four-seamer has quite a bit of movement on it, and he can record strikeouts even when/if his velocity starts to dwindle.
Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman made their Hall of Fame cases not by overpowering batters late into their careers, but outsmarting them, and Kimbrel has the pitching talent and mental makeup to follow that blueprint. Even if his career 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings and 0.920 WHIP rates drop off a bit, he is still in the upper echelon of relief pitchers in baseball and has been for 10 years.
Kimbrel probably shouldn’t be looking for a six-year deal, which he had been reportedly in search of, just because of the climate of the 2018-19 free agency period that has caused even Bryce Harper and Manny Machado to wait on big-money offers. But someone should give him money because he is good at baseball, and will continue to be good at baseball for a while.
The question becomes which one of MLB’s 30 clubs really need Kimbrel, and why, but just about every contending team could use a top-of-the-line closer or premier set-up man. Even if he were to re-sign with the Red Sox and return to the closer role at Fenway Park, he would be valuable in ways that you can’t get from 95 percent of relievers in the sport.
By the end of his career, Kimbrel might be challenging Rivera and Hoffman at the top of the all-time saves list. And, as of now, he is an unsigned, unwanted free agent just three weeks before pitchers and catchers report for spring training. Just give him his money and move on.