A Scenario: Itâ€™s a Tuesday and youâ€™re Craig Kimbrel. You havenâ€™t warmed up in a game since last Wednesday when you helped salvage that getaway-day win in Cincy. Itâ€™s only seven weeks into the seasonâ€¦ and you see where itâ€™s going. The trade deadlineâ€™s still way off, but you wonder how much longer youâ€™ll be commuting to Hank Aaron Drive this year.
As an Alabamian, youâ€™ve come to enjoy playing for your favorite childhood team, and indeed youâ€™ve become a poster boy for the franchise. Your mug graces banner ads on the team website and itâ€™s a big Turner Field hullabaloo each time you strut in from the right-field bullpenâ€”50-foot LED flames fire up The Tedâ€™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 clubâ€”maybe the Tigers or Yankees, sayâ€”be sufficiently desperate on or near July 31?
Orâ€¦ do the Braves want to hang onto a player that the fans will actually pay to seeâ€”now or in the franchiseâ€™s suburban future? Are there focus-group results telling the front office something we donâ€™t know? Would trading you, an uber-performer whoâ€™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+.
Heâ€™s 15-10 with 186 saves in 205 opportunities, a 91-percent conversion rate. And, in case you didnâ€™t crunch the above stats, his career K/9 rate is 14.8 â€“ s-s-s-smokinâ€™.
And if WAR numbers for a reliever make you start touching yourself, Kimbrel is your Betty Grable. Using b-refâ€™s computation, heâ€™s racked up a career 12.2 WARâ€”again, in just over four seasons. Heâ€™s got a long way to go before the comparison is genuinely aptâ€”like, 15 more seasonsâ€”but 3 WAR per year is Mariano Rivera territory.
And Thereâ€™s More: Not to get too far ahead of ourselves and go all-Keltner here, but itâ€™s interesting to note what else Kimbrel has accomplished in his short career. Letâ€™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, heâ€™s finished in the Top 10 of the Cy Young Award voting (9th, 5th, 4th & 9th in â€™14). He even garnered MVP votes, finishing 23rd in â€™11, 8th in â€™12, and 11th in â€™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, heâ€™s the best reliever in the league, with Aroldis Chapmanâ€”who held hitters to .121 in only 54 IP, due to his spring-training brainingâ€”a relatively close second.
Contract Status & One Last Question: His current contract will pay him $9M in â€™15, $11M in â€™16, $13M in â€™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?
Thatâ€™s where we are, folks. Whether or not Kimbrelâ€™s tradedâ€”and the word now appears to be noâ€”itâ€™s still gonna be a long season. Weâ€™re looking at a low-expectation club with one of the craziest luxuries in the game â€“ a dominant and potentially historic closer. Itâ€™s like driving a heaving jalopy with a fraying timing belt, while itâ€™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?