It’s getting late in the off-season, and a troublingly large number of big names are still on the free agent market. We just saw Manny Machado sign, meaning dominoes will start to fall, but even with that move, players who should be headed south for spring training simply don’t have a team. Meanwhile, teams with holes aren’t signing guys. The Indians are one such team, needing a boost to the bullpen so Dan Otero, Nick Goody, and Adam Cimber aren’t relied upon in huge moments.
There stands Craig Kimbrel, the bullpen ace of the reigning world champions, looking for work. Why not?
Not “why not throw whatever he wants at him”, of course, but more a “why not take advantage of the situation and get him for a short-term deal” kind of a thing. As the free agent market has dried up the last several years, the Tribe has used some level of player desperation to bolster their lineup. Or try to, at least.
Michael Bourn signed for dozens of millions less than he was looking for. It looked like a great deal at the time, and early on he was an impact player. Edwin Encarnacion did the same thing, and was central in their incredible 2017 run to the playoffs. I contend his ankle injury in that ALDS was an unsung turning point with his ability to annihilate sliders and the Yankees’ propensity for throwing them, but that’s a tale for another day.
Kimbrel stands in a poor position as a reliever. At 30, he’s on the tail end of his peak, had the “worst” year of his career with a career high 3.13 FIP, the second highest walk rate of his career at 12.2 percent, a career low 28.2 percent ground ball rate — 12 points off his career average — and while he still threw very hard at 97.1 mph on average, it’s literally his career average. For a 30-year old, that’s a hint at a decline after years pumping pitches in above that mark.
So he’s not falling apart, he’s just in a world where people don’t want to give $60 or $80 million to a closer. Sort of, anyway. That’s what Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman got the last two winters, but now the high dollar teams are full up, and there’s no market for Kimbrel. Which presents an opportunity for the Indians. Yes, they’re cash-strapped, by their own admission. And Kimbrel isn’t likely to sign some kind of one or two year deal if he can help it. But what if he can’t?
Kimbrel deserves money because he’s a great pitcher, and it’s a bit sad that he’s been sitting on the open market for so long. But that’s the way the game is these days — relievers over 30 are often cast aside in favor of young guys with velo and upside. Everyone throws 96 or so anyway — unless you’re a Cleveland prospect — so giving up a bunch of money when you’ve already won the World Series just a year ago is paying for past performance. It’s not what smart teams do, and neither is overpaying for relievers.
We talk a lot about this limited window the Indians have. Bauer and Kluber are only going to be around a few more years, and barring something unforeseen we can expect three more years from Lindor, too. So it makes sense to make an investment in the short term. If the goal is to win World Series anyway, rather than just dominate a weak division and get bounced in the Divisional Series. Their bullpen is probably fine, it’s just that fine doesn’t cut it these days. Not when the Yankees did what they did, and the Astros still having what they have. Selling a short-term, moderate money deal to Kimbrel is probably something short of impossible, and if it does happen it’s a bit depressing when you think of who is getting the benefit of smaller contracts.
But it doesn’t mean the Indians shouldn’t at least try.