A Scenario: It’s a Tuesday and you’re Craig Kimbrel. You haven’t warmed up in a game since last Wednesday when you helped salvage that getaway-day win in Cincy. It’s only seven weeks into the season… and you see where it’s going. The trade deadline’s still way off, but you wonder how much longer you’ll be commuting to Hank Aaron Drive this year.
As an Alabamian, you’ve come to enjoy playing for your favorite childhood team, and indeed you’ve become a poster boy for the franchise. Your mug graces banner ads on the team website and it’s a big Turner Field hullabaloo each time you strut in from the right-field bullpen—50-foot LED flames fire up The Ted’s mega-video screen. But now with the young season already as lost as Michael Rockefeller, you begin to imagine playing in a park just a short taxi ride from the Motown Museum, down the road from the Bronx House of Detention, or near a beach somewhere.
Because, after this Winter of Disassemblage, one of the few interesting questions left for us in Bravesland is: Will the team trade you? If so, for what? Which club will offer a haul? Is there a haul to be had? Will a contending club—maybe the Tigers or Yankees, say—be sufficiently desperate on or near July 31?
Or… do the Braves want to hang onto a player that the fans will actually pay to see—now or in the franchise’s suburban future? Are there focus-group results telling the front office something we don’t know? Would trading you, an uber-performer who’s locked up for the next four years, be too much for the fanbase? (And does any of that matter if some farm-rich GM ponies up?)
The Real: These questions can only be entertained because, in just over four seasons, Craig Kimbrel has become one of the most dominant relievers in modern history. Basic eye-popping career numbers will suffice:
294 G, 289 IP, 153 H, 476 K, 108 BB, 12 HR, 1.43 ERA, 1.52 FIP, 267 ERA+.
He’s 15-10 with 186 saves in 205 opportunities, a 91-percent conversion rate. And, in case you didn’t crunch the above stats, his career K/9 rate is 14.8 – s-s-s-smokin’.
And if WAR numbers for a reliever make you start touching yourself, Kimbrel is your Betty Grable. Using b-ref’s computation, he’s racked up a career 12.2 WAR—again, in just over four seasons. He’s got a long way to go before the comparison is genuinely apt—like, 15 more seasons—but 3 WAR per year is Mariano Rivera territory.
And There’s More: Not to get too far ahead of ourselves and go all-Keltner here, but it’s interesting to note what else Kimbrel has accomplished in his short career. Let’s look at award voting: He won the Rookie of the Year in 2011 and, in each of his four full years in the NL, he’s finished in the Top 10 of the Cy Young Award voting (9th, 5th, 4th & 9th in ’14). He even garnered MVP votes, finishing 23rd in ’11, 8th in ’12, and 11th in ’13. Under the radar a bit, but impressive nonetheless.
His 2014 Season: Although his ERA increased (1.61 from 1.21) and his walk rate nosed upward (3.8 per 9 IP from 2.7), his K rate improved slightly (13.9 K per 9 IP from 13.2) and his H/9 rate dropped (5.2 to 4.4). On a losing team, he tallied 47 saves in 51 opportunities. Opposing hitters managed a .142 batting average. He remains super-dominant, about as good as anyone in baseball throwing 60+ innings. Simply put, he’s the best reliever in the league, with Aroldis Chapman—who held hitters to .121 in only 54 IP, due to his spring-training braining—a relatively close second.
Contract Status & One Last Question: His current contract will pay him $9M in ’15, $11M in ’16, $13M in ’17, totaling a potential $46 million for the next four seasons (the fourth year being a $13M team option, including a $1M buyout). Can a guy who brings it so hard and so often be expected to retain such dominance (not to mention health) for the length of his current contract?
That’s where we are, folks. Whether or not Kimbrel’s traded—and the word now appears to be no—it’s still gonna be a long season. We’re looking at a low-expectation club with one of the craziest luxuries in the game – a dominant and potentially historic closer. It’s like driving a heaving jalopy with a fraying timing belt, while it’s outfitted with the sharpest rims and most-pimped-out curb feelers. The question becomes: How often will this heap ever make it to the curb?