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Craig Kimbrel is without a job, and that’s not all on him

Sure, teams don’t want to give out lengthy deals to older relievers, but that’s not what the hang-up is about.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

I’ve tried actually finding a real free agent “rumor” about Craig Kimbrel since November and I have yet to find something satisfying, or even interesting. The last thing from Jon Heyman is on December 20th, stating the following:

Craig Kimbrel is believed to have dropped his price tag slightly, from $96 million to $86 million – rivals say. But word is, that is still too rich for the Red Sox. They were thought more interested in a four-year deal , possibly for something in the $60 million to $70 million range, or perhaps a bit over that. Kimbrel’s price tag may seem high but there is logic to it; his pitching record is comparable to that of Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen, who received deals for $86 million and $80 million, respectively.”

That’s pretty much it since Kimbrel’s agent David Meter said they were starting the bidding at six years.

When I brought up on Twitter how strange it was that Kimbrel, one of the best closers of this era, might not have a job come Opening Day, people immediately responded along the lines of “Well that’s what you get when asking for six years!”

And that’s... partially the truth, if over 100 free agents weren’t unsigned as well. The fact is that a proper negotiation, one that has happened many times in baseball in the past, works like a reverse auction, where a bidder starts at a maximum, desired price and works their way down to what their more real, acceptable number is. But in fact there has been a wall where no team, not even the one that just won the World Series with him, was willing to go beyond something like four years and $60-70 million.

For the most part, I get that. Relievers are really finicky beasts that rarely live up to full expectations, turning from elite to scrub, sometimes overnight. But I wouldn’t necessarily classify Kimbrel as unreliable, or finicky, and one might say he, along with maybe Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman, could be the only Hall of Fame relief candidates from this generation. If anything, his contract should at the bare minimum look something like those counterparts, who signed deals at five years and $80/$86 million, respectively.

Also, big reliever contracts really aren’t stinging teams as much as people would likely claim. Let’s look at the biggest completed deals for relievers:

Largest Reliever Contracts

Reliever Contract Length in Years Total Contract Value Surplus Value
Reliever Contract Length in Years Total Contract Value Surplus Value
Jonathan Papelbon 4 $50,000,000 -$15,200,000
David Robertson 4 $46,000,000 -$3,200,000
Francisco Cordero 4 $46,000,000 -$26,700,000
Craig Kimbrel 5 $55,000,000 $22,100,000
BJ Ryan 5 $47,000,000 -$33,000,000
Mariano Rivera 3 $45,000,000 -$2,300,000
Billy Wagner 4 $43,000,000 -$11,000,000
Mariano Rivera 4 $39,990,000 $1,890,000
Andrew Miller 4 $36,000,000 $26,100,000
Francisco Rodriguez 3 $37,000,000 -$14,200,000
AVERAGE WITH KIMBREL 4 $44,499,000 -$5,551,000
AVERAGE WITHOUT KIMBREL 3.888888889 $43,332,222 -$8,623,333
ELITE RELIEVERS WITHOUT KIMBREL 3.714285714 $42,427,143 -$2,558,571

There are a few ways to look at this. One is including every pitcher here, where relievers recoup something like 87% of their value. But we don’t necessarily want to include a previous Kimbrel deal that also included arbitration years, so we leave out his massive surplus value. Even with that, pitchers recouped 80% of their value.

The other way to look at it is that the worst pitchers aren’t necessarily elite; do we really think modern analytics departments are giving out big deals to a Francisco Cordero-like pitcher today? If we leave out Cordero and BJ Ryan, and even leave out Kimbrel’s deal, those pitchers recouped a whopping 95% of their value.

That’s all back-of-the-napkin math and I think it’s also besides the point in a way. We have a purported fact that reliever contracts are bad. We know that’s not really true, and it’s even less true when we’re only talking about the best of the best getting their due.

It also has to do with previous precedence in a similar fashion to arbitration. If arbitration sets rates at previous statistical precedents, then markets would generally behave the same way if teams were competing fairly. There are only two relievers who had more fWAR since 2013 than Kimbrel, and those players are Jansen and Chapman. Our former writer Michael Bradburn made the point rather succinctly that he could, and might be right now, the best closer of all-time:

I’m still #TeamMo for now, but the point stands that this isn’t all about reliever value and getting a fair deal, it’s about taking a wholesale philosophy that free agents, and especially relievers in particular, are disposable and fungible, where it isn’t worth much to use a percentage of the all-important cap space on a player where you could randomly get similar value from a random Chad Green that pops up out of nowhere.

Having the best closer of a generation does help, as lovers of Mariano Rivera would agree. Not only are there high leverage situations that have a greater value than WAR, but there is the outside chance of milestone chases and accomplishments that bring fan interest and people to the ballpark. Sometimes it’s just fun to watch generational talents even if the numbers don’t always add up in the end. There are multiple vectors to attack this jobless issue from, and only one, small one is related to his initial demands.