There was quite an interesting discussion on Twitter during the Red Sox home opener surrounding Craig Kimbrel, who, like Dallas Keuchel, is still a free agent despite the fact that the regular season is nearly two weeks old. Feeling frustrated by the lack of spending on free agents, a feeling I can certainly sympathize with, one side was arguing that Kimbrel deserves his rumored asking price of six years and $100 million given the Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen contracts. The other side argued that given Kimbrel’s age, signs of decline, and how volatile reliever performance can be made his asking price a bad idea, regardless of the fact that any team can afford him.
As part of Beyond the Box Score’s free agent preview series, I wrote about my thoughts on Kimbrel’s free agent prospects. I was really down on him for reasons I laid out in that article. I suggested a contract that was a fraction of what he is reportedly asking for: two years, $30 million. After witnessing the events of this past offseason, and having read the arguments in favor of Kimbrel’s asking price, I have softened my stance on what I would offer quite a bit depending how much a team needs him.
I think we need to change the way that we evaluate players’ contracts and what they are worth — an article for another day. That being said, I believe that Craig Kimbrel’s situation is worth a deeper discussion. Let’s take a look at both sides of this argument.
Pay the man!
Kimbrel is coming off another excellent season. He had a 2.74 RA9, 2.58 DRA, struck out about 39 percent of batters faced, and was worth 2.3 WAR. He did have quite a poor walk rate of 12.6 percent, but he apparently got the job done anyway. Aroldis Chapman had consistently struggled with control himself, yet he got a five-year, $85 million deal with a career 11.6 BB%. Kenley Jansen got a similar contract as an elite reliever.
Though it is difficult to argue that Kimbrel was “elite” last year, he certainly was the year before when he turned in an all-time great season for a reliever with a 1.43 RA9 while striking out about half of the batters he faced. He somehow even lowered his walk rate to an excellent 5.5 percent of batters faced. Sure, his 2018 season was a step back from that phenomenal 2017 season, but there was no way he was going to repeat that.
On the bright side, Kimbrel did lower his hard-hit contact rate last year by roughly a third. He still has great strikeout rates, too, as well as his continued ability to get swinging strikes.
There is a good argument that Kimbrel is not elite anymore, but there is evidence that he can still be one of the better relievers in the game. That can be worth a lot of money to a competitive team in need of bullpen help, of which there is no shortage. Take the Nationals, for example. There were major concerns surrounding their bullpen, and even though the season is in its infancy, so far those concerns have been borne out. That have a horrific 10.17 RA9 so far, and while that is unsustainably bad, the NL East is expected to be ultra competitive this year. In this division and any close race, those extra wins are worth a lot. A whole lot. They are certainly worth more than the oversimplified $/WAR metric would indicate.
These teams in need of bullpen help certainly have the money for it, with the arguable exception of the Red Sox, but that is more of an issue of the luxury tax, which is a whole other topic altogether. MLB is enjoying record high revenues that are not keeping up with player salaries. With the rash of recent extensions, many of which are team friendly, fewer and fewer players are going to reach free agency, which provides fewer opportunities to do anything with that extra money. Surplus value is only useful if that extra money is spent elsewhere. Right now it appears to be going into the owners’ pockets.
I’ll end with something that is more of an opinion than an argument: Seeing players not getting paid is getting old. I would be very hesitant to give Kimbrel $100 million, but I would be happy to see the man get paid. If a team believes that Kimbrel is still elite or close to it, that can be a good enough reason to overpay him, especially given how high revenues are right now.
Paying veteran relievers can be very risky
The fact of the matter is that veteran relievers are the riskiest types of free agents. The track record of giving them contracts of three years or more is fraught with disasters. More recently, I have continually pointed to the Rockies splurging on their bullpen last year and how poorly it worked out.
Kimbrel’s first contract worked out surprisingly well, but now he is going into his age-31 season, and his walk rates have been incredibly volatile from year to year, worse than Chapman when he entered free agency. Including the playoffs, Kimbrel had a 13.6 BB% in 2016 and a 13.1 BB% last year. Also of note is a decline in fastball velocity. A 97.5 MPH fastball is still very good, of course, but it is over a MPH down from the year before.
Back to the comparisons to Chapman and Jansen, though they did get the big contracts that Kimbrel is looking for, they were both going into their age-29 season, two years younger than Kimbrel. That is not huge, but one could argue that it matters more for relievers. Those two have also been underwhelming so far.
Over the last two years in New York, Chapman has had a 3.10 RA9 and 2.7 WAR. His velocity was down last year, and so far it is down two more miles per hour to under 97. He is also coming off a year where his hard-hit rate was the highest it has been since 2013. As for Jansen, it is hard to tell how much his heart condition affected him, but he is coming off a year where he had a 3.52 RA9, and his strikeout rate plummeted to almost 28 percent. If this is going to be the new norm, then Jansen is nowhere near elite with three years left to go on his contract.
With Kimbrel especially, it is so hard to predict what you’re going to get from him. The ZiPS projection system has him as averaging 1 WAR per season over the next three years. If we check the Play Index for relievers who were worth 1-1.5 WAR last year, you get 31 results, one of whom is Wade Davis, who had an 86 RA9- after the first year of his three-year, $52 million deal. Another one is Jeurys Familia, who signed this past offseason for only three years and $30 million. If you expand the search to the 1-2 WAR range, you get 50 players. These kind of relievers are just not that rare.
I’m all for a team overpaying a player they really need. Veteran relievers carry so much risk, though, and Kimbrel has clearly displayed some red flags. As much as it disgusts me to say this about teams amidst all the salary suppression, I can understand the reluctance to give Kimbrel a mega deal when there is evidence that it could look bad in year one.
Among all the discussions and debate surrounding Kimbrel’s persisting free agency, there is one key piece of information missing: what exactly teams have been offering him. Did Kimbrel and his agent completely misread the market? Or have teams offered him something close to his asking price? Regardless, I think he is playing this right for now. A good number of competitive teams are already desperate for bullpen help. Kimbrel might be able to leverage that nicely.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.