Entering free agency, Craig Kimbrel had to have been feeling good. He was by far the most established closer on the market with his 333 career saves. In addition, Kimbrel was coming off his seventh All-Star season.
He put up a 5-1 record with the Boston Red Sox along with a 2.74 ERA, 13.9 SO/9, and 42 saves (second in the American League behind Edwin Diaz).
While there were a number of solid reliever options such as David Robertson and Zack Britton, they just couldn’t match Kimbrel’s track record. Andrew Miller and Cody Allen were coming off less-than-stellar years. To make a long story short, Kimbrel was the most attractive late-inning option out there and big-money teams like the Red Sox, Cardinals, and Phillies would surely come calling.
Fast forward to late February. Robertson, Britton, Miller, and Allen have all been signed. Kimbrel remains. It has gotten to the point where there was a report by Jim Bowden that, according to multiple general managers, Kimbrel’s asking price has not come down, and that he would consider sitting out the 2019 season if he didn’t receive the contract he desired. The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal later reported that Kimbrel’s agent, David Meter, said the rumor was “wholly inaccurate” and that Kimbrel is looking forward to signing a contract.
In case you’re wondering what Kimbrel’s desired price is, The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark reported in December that Kimbrel was looking for a contract of six years and $100 million. That would make him the highest paid reliever of all time, beating out Aroldis Chapman‘s five-year, $86 million deal.
There were always going to be some challenges with that. When Chapman signed his deal in 2016 with the Yankees, he was 28 and coming off a season where he put up a 1.55 ERA with 36 saves and a SO/9 of an astounding 15.7 (90 strikeouts in 58.0 innings).
Likewise, Mark Melancon signed a four-year, $62 million contract in 2016 after putting up an ERA of 1.64 with 47 saves. He was 31-years-old at the time. Kimbrel may not like to hear it, but he’s likely to receive a contract closer to Melancon’s rather than Chapman’s if one were to base it upon the player’s age and stats from the previous season.
Kimbrel’s statistics in his contract year actually match up closer to Jonathon Papelbon‘s. Papelbon went 4-1 with a 2.94 ERA and 31 saves in 2011, then signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the Phillies.
It’s clear to see why some teams would be wary of dealing out the biggest closer contract ever when Kimbrel wasn’t coming off as amazing a season as some of his predecessors. Because of Kimbrel’s demands, some of his possible destinations have already long been filled. Miller went to St. Louis, Britton went back to the Yankees. Allen left for the Los Angeles Angels. The Red Sox remain, but they have shown no urgency to resign Kimbrel.
The Phillies signed Robertson, but that hasn’t excluded them from Kimbrel speculation. USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale tweeted in January that the Phillies had visions of signing Kimbrel, Bryce Harper, and Dallas Keuchel (all of whom are still free agents).
Recently, MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki reported that the Phillies weren’t likely to pursue either player seriously unless their prices dropped. Zolecki mentions that Kimbrel’s velocity has dropped from 2017 to 2018, and that his rate of pitches in the strike zone fell as well. Both of those facts could be of concerns to the Phillies. Not to mention, as Zolecki points out, the Phillies think they already have one of the better late-inning bullpens in the league with Robertson, Seranthony Dominguez, and Hector Neris. Zolecki suggests that Kimbrel on a short-term deal could be more realistic for the Phillies, but it’s hard to say whether Kimbrel would be okay with that scenario.
Kimbrel is one of the best closers to ever pitch in Major League Baseball. He may be moving away from his dominant stretch that took place between 2011 to 2014, when he led the league in saves and had a ERA below 2 every season. But he remains a terrific option who as recently as 2017 pitched to an ERA of 1.43 and possessed a bWAR of 3.6. Of course, none of that may matters if his desires of a record-breaking contract persist.
Perhaps the Phillies sign Harper and decide to go all-in for next season. In that case, maybe they do seriously pursue Kimbrel even with his price range. Of course, $100 million is still hard to see even in those events. Unless Kimbrel lowers his demands, he will likely continue to be in free agency even longer.