The Baseball and Financial Cases For Not Signing Craig Kimbrel

Let me first say that it’s not my money, and if you’re asking me just simply as a fan of the Atlanta Braves whether or not I want Craig Kimbrel to play on my team, then of course I do. That’s not what this is about. If I could, I would have the best player at each position on the roster. Of course.

The Braves will go into the season with their deepest pen since at least the end of their last division run, if not even earlier. And it’s not very top-heavy; it does indeed lack an elite arm. But with an 8-man pen, you already have spots dedicated to A.J. Minter, Arodys Vizcaino, Darren O’Day, and Jonny Venters. Those are locks. So you have four remaining spots for Jesse Biddle, Dan Winkler, Shane Carle, Chad Sobotka, and whoever you would want to carry in the pen who doesn’t crack the rotation. Then you have Grant Dayton, who may be the second-most talented lefty in the pen if he is healthy. Then you have Sam Freeman, who has some value. That’s 6 players for 4 spots, then Sam Freeman. So for those of you that think we aren’t signing Craig Kimbrel because we’re keeping a spot fresh for Luke Jackson, well, you’re mistaken.

So while Kimbrel would absolutely help the back end of the pen and give you much more certainty late in the game, he would prevent you from giving a spot to someone like Dan Winkler or Jesse Biddle or Chad Sobotka, someone with some potential that has 4-5 years of control remaining. And like it or not, the rebuild has been predicated on building an elite pitching staff with many years of control for a lot less than what other teams have built elite pitching staffs for — like $30M instead of $90-100M annually — so that’s something that has be taken into consideration.

So now we get to the financial reason. As it sits, the Braves have the 20th-ranked payroll according to Spotrac. And that is something we never thought would happen when the Braves made the following statements at the beginning of the offseason:

And Dan from last thread’s comments is indeed correct: AA is 0-3. And that’s just simply unacceptable. To keep this core as cheap as possible for as long as possible, they seem to be the only contending team that has not traded a single important prospect. That’s clearly also another financial move, just one that’s not meant to impact 2019. But when it comes to Kimbrel, they’re probably worried about two things: his AAV not lining up with what free agent relievers signed for this offseason, and their financial commitments in 2021.

This offseason, there seemed to have been a market correction for elite relievers. According to Spotrac, this is your current landscape of highest-paid relievers:

You can see the full list here. Britton, Miller, Robertson, and Ottavino all signed this offseason. Jansen, Melancon, Davis, and Chapman signed their deals in previous offseasons. Notice the difference? Your best relievers, who are a stones throw in value from the top paid guys, signed for about 60-80% of what the previous guys did. And it doesn’t take a genius to see why; those top 4 earners did not crack the top 9 in reliever fWAR this year (Chapman was 10th). And Kimbrel was 22nd this past year, just one spot and 0.1 fWAR ahead of A.J. Minter. And it’s also important to note that the Braves already have O’Day on this lit.

So the Braves might be looking at his situation, just like the 29 other teams in baseball, and wondering why they should pay Kimbrel the $16-18M per year he’s looking for when no one else was willing to pay any reliever like that this offseason. And it’s not like Kimbrel is coming off a particularly stellar year.

The Braves are also probably looking to specifically 2021 and what their commitments are. It’s one to thing to sign a guy to a ten-year deal and resolve to figure it out when you get to the end. But 2021 is within range to be making decisions now that impact that year. By that time, much of their core will be into their arb years, with some guys like Folty being in their last year of arb. Gausman will be a free agent. The Braves will undoubtedly be looking to front load some of the guys that will be in arb 1 or 2 by that time like I speculated in a recent post, so they may be looking to actively avoid a situation where they’re paying their closer $18M per while they’re trying to lock up their core long term.

So there is indeed a lot more to this than just Liberty Media is being cheap — though that is objectively true — and it’s partly Kimbrel’s fault that he wants to be paid 30-40% more than what relievers are getting this offseason (and probably in the future). AA is looking to keep the existing core intact when they start costing money, and he probably sees paying a closer $18M per year as an antagonist to that. And you’ve got what is a smidge of a bullpen logjam going on. So while you should have your pitchforks out, maybe just don’t sharpen them just yet.

78 thoughts on “The Baseball and Financial Cases For Not Signing Craig Kimbrel”

  1. Good points that we tend to lose sight of due to the FO’s inactivity after the JD/BM signings.

    So, how far down would The Kraken have to come before we’d sign him? 3/$45? Lower?

  2. Kimbrel’s problems are of his own making. If you are brought in to close out the World Series only for your manager, viewing what you had, to summon Sale for the last three outs then, by the ultimate measure, your credibility is shot.

  3. really nice write-up Rob. The bullpen makeup does kind of hilite how important it was to find some sort of a trade partner in the off season offering some bullpen pieces/ pitching prospects to free up some roster space and bring back semi-elite talent. Obviously easier said than done I suppose.

  4. It’s so unacceptable that a majority of fans are fine with it and don’t care. In fact, the FO has convinced folks to not only not care, but to write articles, blog posts, and comments defending it. Those who are tired of being lied to are in the minority.

  5. Robert Kraft
    some get there by sheer graft
    others by the accidents of birth
    so why not lose it in such a way that lets us have our mirth.

  6. @1 – I don’t see the Braves going higher or longer than 3/45. And I would agree with that using Rob’s arguments.

  7. “AA is looking to keep the existing core intact when they start costing money”

    Believe it when you see it. I’m waiting for the serious, forward-thinking explanations of why we totally can’t pay a 27-year-old Ronald Acuna market value if we want to field a winning team. The only star this team has an interest in retaining is Financial Flexibility.

    Also, it seems kind of dumb to be playing fourteen-dimensional chess with future payroll half a decade down the line when it seems entirely likely that there will be a knock-down, drag-out gladiator battle over the sport’s basic salary structure in three years? I feel like you don’t want to put too many down payments on the current sand castle, you know?

  8. You also don’t want to be locked into paying a guaranteed 25 million per for a decade and a half during a 2 year labor shut down.

  9. Sam @ 9,

    It the union goes on strike, the members don’t get paid (at least not by owners, maybe by strike fund). That would be a reason to not put a large bonus on the front.

    I think the more practical projection problem with doing contracts now that extend beyond the window of this CBA is the we don’t know the financial structure. Likely, the players get a better deal meaning most contracts would be in better position than a comparable contract would be at that point under a new CBA. But nobody knows.

  10. @9 — Why not?

    This is a serious question. As a fan, bad contracts only matter to the extent that they interfere with the team’s ability to field a complete team. If the team isn’t being fielded at all because of labor strife, what do I care where the money is going? And then, when baseball is being played, you have a good player.

    (On the flip side, as a fan, prudent fiscal practices only matter if it is enabling better teams. If Liberty or AA, through shrewd market-reading, brilliant negotiation, or outright collusion, manages to squeeze $5 million here or a year’s contract length there from the players, that only matters to me if it’s reinvested to make the team better. So far, we haven’t seen it.)

  11. I’m waiting for the serious, forward-thinking explanations of why we totally can’t pay a 27-year-old Ronald Acuna market value if we want to field a winning team.

    The Braves currently employ the 2nd-highest paid 1B, 2nd-highest paid 3B, and 9th-highest paid reliever. I’m not sure why you’re saying they won’t pay one of the top 5 outfielders in the game.

  12. Call me crazy but I’m not convinced that we shouldn’t sign Kimbrell because we have to keep spots open for Dan Winkler, Shane Carle, and Jesse Biddle.

  13. @14 I agree. I know Rob is basing his argument on more than that, but I wouldn’t let that point influence me.

    Sure, those guys were solid last year; but none of them will give you what Kimbrel would give you.

    I’m also not really factoring re-signing Gausman into anything, because the Braves should have capable guys coming to fill his shoes.

    I’d give an honest shot to trying to sign Kimbrel to a 4 year, front-loaded deal.

  14. @13 — Those second two are gone after the season (and one was explicitly a salary dump), and the other was from two regimes ago, so no, I don’t take that too seriously.

    This is like the same level of argument as McGuirk’s “We should get credit for raising payroll (even though we haven’t) because our dead money from last year doesn’t count” thing.

    The time to invest in the team is now. The window is open. If they refrain from doing so, it means that they don’t want a cheap core so that they can afford to supplement with expensive players and build a championship team, it means they want a cheap core because it’s cheap, and they don’t have to pay them as much.

    I want evidence. Show me the team, as it exists right now, making any kind of investment in the future product on the field.

  15. This is like the same level of argument as McGuirk’s “We should get credit for raising payroll (even though we haven’t) because our dead money from last year doesn’t count” thing.

    I do agree that was one of the many cringe-worthy things he said. Like, who cares? The whole point of clearing the dead weight in 2018 was to be able to spend more in 2019. That and “no no no, dumb children, we said we would have flexibility, not that we would actually spend! You so foolish. That’s why you’re down there, and we’re up here.”

    I think not signing Kimbrel is the bridge too far from ownership. Listen, if you want to buy a MLB franchise because they are appreciating like crazy, and it’s one of the few entities you can park your money in where you can get free real estate equity from local municipalities, whatever. We don’t like it, but that’s the way the world turns. And if you want to keep re-investing into the real estate component to leverage your assets off each other (building onto The Battery to increase the value of STP, and vice versa), then fine. But when you won’t spend to get within the bottom-third of baseball while all the eyes are on you, then you’ve gone too far. Right, wrong, or indifferent, it just looks really bad. And a media company needs to be a little smarter than that, but until it shows up in the turnstiles and TV, they won’t care, and frankly, nor should they.

    They are making a calculated move that it won’t affect revenue. They’re literally staring you in the face saying, “Go for it. Don’t watch Freddie, Acuna, Ozzie, Folty. I dare ya.” And we will blink, one by one. And that’s just not cool to realize that’s what your team is doing. But they are.

  16. @14, 16

    What I said was that they probably want to have that roster spot to run through the remaining of those players. It’s very possible, if not probable, that you’ll be paying about $16-18M for an extra WAR from Kimbrel because that roster spot will still probably produce about 0.8-1.0 fWAR if you can run a pitching prospect or the lesser of Winkler/Biddle/Carle/Dayton through that spot, and they’ll do it for the league minimum. Then there’s also the component of having one less roster spot to play the AAA/MLB yoyo with the guys with options, which is something that even the Not Evil Big Spending Dodgers do. It also does slides every reliever down a rung in importance IRT leverage, which has to be taken into consideration as well. With that said, that may not even happen anyway since O’Day and Vizzy are injury risks, so you may be already baking the need for another reliever anyway since one of them will probably be on the DL for an extended time this year.

    If it was a matter of “would you rather spend $16-18M on an extra WAR from Kimbrel or elsewhere”, then I think people can get behind the discussion. But… there’s no elsewhere, and that’s the sticking point. Getting 1 WAR for the league minimum used to have a certain aura of attractiveness until a large segment of the fanbase concluded their team is just flat out cheap, and that’s on Liberty, all day.

  17. Some of said relievers are out of options as well. Off the top of my head, Biddle and Jackson (they need to trade him for anything or lose him for nothing) are OOO. Not sure if Carle and Freeman have options either.

    Obviously, if the Braves could afford him or be willing to pay him, Kimbrel is better than any of those guys. But I am just pointing out that some of these guys they can’t just send back to the minors.

  18. Honestly, there were a lot of things the Braves could have done to improve the team, which they did not do.

    a) Spend a lot (prospects or money): Pay through the nose and trade a boatload of prospects for Kluber, or spend a ton of cash on Harper

    b) Spend a little: Short-year commitment to guys like Brantley, Grandal, or Wilson Ramos

    c) Spend hardly anything: Low-dollar guarantees to fringey bounceback candidates like Lonnie Chisenhall, or good role players like Oliver Perez and Greg Holland

    In both his value and his price tag, Kimbrel is somewhere between a) and b). I’ve never believed in the idea of a Closer. I want them to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the team and I’d rather they prioritize spending that money on starters, not guys who play 70 innings a year.

    But like Rob said, it’s not my money and ultimately I just would rather that they spend it than stuff it under the stupid mattress.

  19. They didn’t want to pay up to improve RF or C, so why would they pay up for a closer that pitches 50 or 60 innings?

    Signing Kimbrel would be completely incompatible with their current strategy of saving money and paying down debt.

  20. I think it is being under-covered that Kimbrel may just not be all that good anymore.

    IMO, unless you have the BEST reliever in baseball, its really not worth paying a guy a ton of money.

    There were closers/relievers last year with ERAs in the mid 1s. Guys that struck out 130 batters.

    If Kimbrel hadn’t pitched in Atlanta previously, this wouldn’t even be a topic.

    Liberty Media are cheap, terrible liars, but I don’t think not signing Kimbrel fits into that.

  21. The hilarious thing is that, going into the offseason, I didn’t even want Kimbrel, for pretty much the reasons you’ve outlined here. I’m not on the Kimbrel-or-bust bandwagon, and never have been. But that was when I thought the Braves could be in on an outfielder, or a starting pitcher, or a good bench piece, or… well, anything really. Now I just want to see a show of good faith. Some reassurance that management even wants to improve the team.

    I guess what it comes down to is that I want all those years of rebuilding to have been worth something. I was on board with the rebuild. I was willing to put up with all that shitty baseball, with Jason Grilli and A.J. Pierzynski and Nick Markakis and Adonis Garcia and Nick Swisher and Juan Uribe and Alberto Callaspo and Aaron Blair and Brandon Phillips and Bartolo Colon and Jace Peterson, if it meant that at the end, we would have the vaunted championship contender. We’d have that core of young talent, we’d have that deep farm system to trade from, we’d have that freed-up payroll for the finishing touches. If, at the end of it, we still have those same good-ish high-eighties-win teams with a Wild Card shot, maybe more if everything goes well and we get really lucky, that gets stomped into paste by the better teams in the first round, then what was the point of all of it? We could have done nothing and still be the same fringy contenders we are right now.

    Even this offseason, I was cautiously optimistic (although AA flatly declaring that the Braves weren’t going to be in on Machado or Harper so don’t get your hopes up a few weeks after the “shop in any aisle” comments should have set off alarm bells). I was convinced AA was waiting out the market, investigating guys the media didn’t even know was available, and any day now he was going to make the big move that solidified the Braves as a force to be reckoned with. But the further we got without any of that happening, the less confident I became, and then the Nick Markakis signing just sealed the deal. It was such an unambitious move, a flat admission that, well, somebody has to stand around in right and get four-five useless ABs a game, so he might as well be cheap. It was like waking up from a dream: None of this is ever happening, is it? We’re just going to have to count on the kids being good enough to carry us, huh. Jesus. At least Frank Wren was trying.

    I guess I can only blame myself. It’s hard, coming to the realization that you’re a mark. The guys I feel really bad for are people like Freddie and Albies, who have to be good soldiers and pretend it’s actually great that they’re playing for the world’s most talented company softball team.

  22. Keuchel and Kimbrel are the only 2+ WAR free agents left, and I honestly don’t want to watch the Vizcaíno/Minter show in the ninth. So yes, I’m fully on-board with the team signing Kimbrel, but I don’t expect the front office to suddenly wake up in March and start improving this team for the start of the 2019 regular season.

  23. I feel like Kimbrel’s value to a team is being grossly underestimated.

    @19 The way the Dodgers yo-yo guys around is a bit of a joke, to me. You’re absolutely going to need to shuffle some guys during the season, which I understand. I feel as if shuttling guys around in an effort to essentially run a 30 man roster is unfair to the players, though.

    Also, I feel like sliding every reliever the Braves have now down a rung would be a benefit. I don’t know all of the advanced analytic stuff some people like to use to value RP, but I know Minter’s inconsistent at times. He’s not a closer. There’s games he looked like he had nothing last year. Viz is good, but he’s an injury risk.

    I feel like a majority of people (not saying you, specifically, Rob. Generalizing) arguing against Kimbrel do so because they’re willing to punt on a closer. That’s a mistake.

  24. Our closer situation is fragile. Kimbrell makes us better. Not that that is the top concern for this front office.

    I will also go out on a limb and say he will sell tickets/ jerseys. He’a a marquee player in ATL. People will pay for the nostalgia. Plus Kimbrell (or any elite closer) adds a level of excitement to a game. Last year I visited Seattle and one of my first thoughts when buying tickets (and deciding between one game or two) was “I may get to see Diaz close a game.”

    Edit: Most of all, if the Nats get him I will freaking lose it.

  25. As someone who has grown to appreciate the exciting moments in sports and entertainment even more as I’ve gotten older, there is something that just pumps my butt up to see Craig Kimbrel coming in in the ninth inning. There are a lot more components that go into it, but I don’t care. That’s just exciting. I agree we shouldn’t pay a closer $18M, and if he gets it, God bless him. But exciting is exciting.

  26. Just had to check Devine out. Did not realise he stopped playing after a short but half decent stint with the Padres. Whatever happened to him after that? Did he stop playing altogether?

  27. Gotta love that Devine 2008 season:

    Devine had a breakout season with the Athletics in 2008; in 45​2⁄3 innings, Devine gave up just 23 hits, walked only 15, struck out 49, held major-league batters to a .148 BA, and finished with a remarkable 0.59 ERA; the lowest ever in MLB history among pitchers with a minimum of 45 innings since ERA became an official statistic in 1912. This record is not officially recognized because the MLB minimum is 50 innings.

    It’s like he was good, but Cox wouldn’t just let him pitch his own innings, and the team as a whole kept jerking him around in 2007, repeatedly calling him up and sending him back down to the minors to make room for Pete Orr.

  28. Just a little editor’s note. Due to the savvy maneuvering of our man Hap, you can embed YouTube videos and tweets just by simply pasting the URL. You don’t need to do HTML tags anymore. Thanks Hap!

  29. I think a lot of these injury things are much ado about nothing with the exception of Soroka and Fried. I don’t think Gausman, Folty, or Minter’s situations are that serious. And with Fried, it’s just the suspicion that he’s trade bait and they don’t want it getting out that he has more blisters issue. If that’s not the case, and it was indeed a cut on his pinky, then I’m not really worried about Fried either.

    Soroka, yikes, I don’t feel good about him at all. I fear for his shoulder move than any other pitcher’s elbow…

  30. Not to horn toot, but did I unwittingly create a new Glossary term in Ballard?

  31. @44–that is a good read. I don’t necessarily read it as optimistic. The writer points out, correctly, that for the Braves to repeat several youngsters must continue to improve. Folks on here have been pointing out, correctly, that a lot has to go right for the Braves to win 90 games again, and that is not especially likely.
    Because of the youth on offense and among the pitchers, there is more uncertainty than there is with most teams. Like most on here, I am quite frustrated with management for not reducing that uncertainty by upgrading rf, catcher, and the pitching staff.

    But what the hell, this is a young and exciting team; might as well get into it. If all does go well, it should be a helluva pennant race.

  32. @46 that is an unbelievable injury.
    How about this one – in the news today: A football player from the French team Girondins Bordeaux tried to go for face (beard) hair implants and got injured while doing so. Expected to miss several weeks due to the injury. Beard hair implants! You can’t make this shit up.

  33. Bowden wrote a piece over at The Athletic grading the NL East offseason. B- for the Braves accoring to him.
    Loved the Donaldson signing and that AA held on to all the top prospects.

    Can’t disagree but I’ll better take cover right now…

    PS. A+ for the Phils, A- for both the Mets and Nats

  34. @50. This reminds me a little bit of being an Auburn fan. Sure we (Auburn) finished top 10 in the country in recruiting. Too bad though that 3 teams IN THE WEST finished ahead of us.

    It’s not that it was a bad offseason, it just wasn’t as good as our competition. I’m sure there are teams in MLB that had D- or F offseasons. But if their competition had C- offseasons, it might not matter as much. It’s rare in this modern baseball age to seemingly have 3 other teams IN YOUR DIVISION that are outwardly trying to win. Most teams in baseball are trying to compete/not run fans off.

    My biggest disagreement is that I believe that their decision to go all in on the ‘kids’ long term will fail. Especially when you consider that other than the Marlins, all other division teams are willing/choosing to NOT do that. The odds of all three other teams’ decisions to add FAs and proven players failing vis a vis our decision to go all in on the farm is not in our favor, IMO.

  35. Does anyone know why Sean Kazmar is getting so many looks in spring training? His last and only big league experience was in 2008 with the Padres when he batted a whopping 205 in 39 at bats. He’s 34 and has been in Gwinnett since 2013. Last year in 338 at bats he put up an impressive 254/296/314 – a sparkling 609 ops. Is this his farewell tour?

  36. I’m not nearly as impressed by the Mets offseason — as with the Reds, I think they paid a ton and I’m not convinced that they’re as much better as they think they are. But at least for this year, they’re not a doormat and they have to be taken seriously, and if DeGrom and Syndergaard stay healthy all year then they could easily get to 90 wins.

  37. Is Kazmar just playing a lot because Dansby wasn’t?

    Wright looks good.

    I picked up D-money.

  38. Maybe Wright is ready to shoot through the rest and be the one to start. I’d have never thought he was gonna outpitch all the others – this year – but so far so good.

    Sobotka just got “judged”. Two walks to boot…..

  39. Yeah, and Kazmar is a real butcher in the field. At least today.

    So I watched Ian Anderson’s bullpen from about 10 feet away. That is an easy, smooth 95+ on a cold day. Then Anderson comes in, pitching to Contreras, ball lined to centerfield and Pache makes a laid-out diving grab in left center after running a mile. I don’t know what the lowest offer Atlanta refused for Realmuto, but I can see why they didn’t want to trade Anderson, Contreras, and Pache.

    Sobotka had two walks, but he pretty much overpowered everyone but that Judge blast. No shame there. But his stuff just isn’t good enough to overcome the walks.

    Wright faced a real big league lineup and looked good. Kept the ball down and away, no walks, the two hits weren’t hit that hard.

    I was watching Camargo long toss before the game. He easily has the arm for the outfield even though he’s, ya know, pretty slow.

    And I got Drew Waters’ autograph. Pretty good day. A lot better than working.

  40. Agreed, but I still don’t understand why he is getting so much playing time. Don’t we have real prospects who need to get a look?

  41. Not at the infield spots in the high minors. Riley, Pache, Waters, Contreras, and Jackson are really our bell cows on the position player side.

    Kazmar and Florimon are competing to be the first man up from AAA, it would seem, unless they sign someone. With a four-man bench, I don’t yet begrudge them for not signing someone else. If Duvall is hitting in Spring Training, then Duvall, Camargo, Culberson, and catcher is a tremendous bench. But infielders in the high minors is pretty barren.

  42. Today, for me, was the perfect day on the pitching side. We see two high end pitching prospects, Sobotka, Webb, and Burrows on the relief side, then Jose De Paula, a 31-year old RHP who has given up 1 run in only 4.1 IP but got squeezed out of the Yankees’ pen a couple years ago.

  43. I don’t think Kazmar is even competing to be first man up. He has spent the entire season at Gwinnett for 4-5 years. He could run for mayor.

  44. Who else would be? There’s no Jace Peterson or tweener prospect in AAA. There’s always a Ryan Flaherty or somebody out there at the end of Spring Training too, of course. But yeah, Freddie’s not going to log those innings, and Slugbauer has had a lot of playing time too.

  45. You’re right; clearly Florimon. Maybe if there were 2 injuries on the same day, but then they’d sign someone anyway probably. But we’re really just talking about why he’s playing so much in Spring Training.

    It looks like the 5th starter will only be needed 4 times in the entire month of April. It’ll be needed the 2nd and 3rd turns through the rotation then won’t be needed again until the 5th and 6th times through. So as long as Folty isn’t really far behind, they’re not going to miss him much since he’s not needed the 1st and 4th times through. And it looks like Gausman won’t even miss a start at this point. So it seems that it’s just down to who finds themselves on the first lineup card of the season. Who cares?

  46. “Kimbrel spotted at Orlando airport,” part 2:

  47. It’s really too bad that our season is wasted, forfeited, effectively cancelled as a result of all those injuries earlier in spring training.

    Once you doom, you can’t undoom. Look, I don’t make the rules.

  48. @73 As for myself, I never “doom” until the games are played. The best part of April is that everyone is in it (unless you’re the O’s and lose 21 straight games to begin the season). Would I prefer the Braves have done more and not have any injuries? Of course. But it’s a long season and this is a really good team.

  49. @76, My good dude, you were wondering aloud if we should fire the pitching coach…

  50. New thread, after all.

    Rusty, the schedule date was in the post, so I think it got confused.

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