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Report: Phillies liked Craig Kimbrel, but top prospect Mick Abel was a non-starter


Craig Kimbrel is one of the best relievers in MLB history. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)

When Dave Dombrowski took over as the Philadelphia Phillies’ president of baseball operations in December, many fans worried that the longtime executive’s hire meant the team would be overaggressive in dealing top prospects for immediate gains. Dombrowski’s track record — which included trades of eventual Hall of Famers Randy Johnson and Trevor Hoffman in their rookie seasons; then-No. 1 overall prospect Yoán Moncada in 2016; and two Top 10 prospects in 2007 — certainly suggested he wasn’t afraid to do just that. 

But regardless of your opinion about Friday’s Spencer Howard deal, a report coming out of the trade deadline indicates that Dombrowski at least has a limit to his win-now approach. NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury tweeted that the Phillies were intrigued by the idea of acquiring Craig Kimbrel from the Chicago Cubs before Friday’s deadline, but that the Cubs’ asking price of No. 1 prospect Mick Abel essentially put that conversation to rest. 

Kimbrel assuredly would have bolstered the Phillies’ chances of making a serious run at the National League East title this season. The team has MLB’s 10th-worst bullpen ERA, and Kimbrel’s 0.49 mark with a staggering 64 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings would have provided quite the boost.

The right-hander — who’s experiencing a career resurgence of sorts in 2021 after a couple shaky seasons with the Cubs — ended up being dealt across town to the AL-Central-best White Sox, and the return was quite hefty: The South Siders sent 24-year-old second baseman Nick Madrigal along with 25-year-old reliever Codi Heuer back to the Cubs. Madrigal, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2018 draft, has battled injuries in each of his first two seasons in the majors but hit .340 across 29 games in 2020 and .305 in 54 games this year. Meanwhile, Heuer’s numbers have been shaky this season, but a strong 2020 and a 90th percentile fastball velocity give him tremendous upside as the supplementary piece in the deal.

All this is to say that the Cubs’ demand for Abel — MLB Pipeline’s No. 59 overall prospect and the No. 15 pick in 2020’s draft — was no bluff. That the White Sox were willing to part with Madrigal, who is under control through 2026, for Kimbrel, controllable through 2022, is a good sign that the Phillies would’ve been unable to work out any deal unless Abel was included. 

It explains why MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported Tuesday that the Phillies “were having trouble getting traction” on Kimbrel, and why they ultimately ended up settling on Ian Kennedy as part of Friday’s trade with the Texas Rangers for their biggest upgrade to the bullpen. 

Of course, things may have been different under different circumstances. Had the Phillies not been a mere 51-51 when the deadline rolled around, perhaps they’d have been more open to dealing Abel — who’s struck out 13.3 batters per nine innings this season in Clearwater — for Kimbrel or a player of his caliber. Had they not been 3 ½ games out of first place with just one realistic path to the playoffs, maybe Dombrowski would have pushed his chips to the center of the table.

There’s no way to be certain. But as it stands, the Phillies were both of those things, and — whether their place in the standings was the primary reason or not — Abel will remain in the organization for the foreseeable future. Accordingly, fans who feared the prize of the Phillies’ farm system might be sent packing in a short-sighted move can breathe a little easier.

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