February 12, 2013 at 10:00 am by Mark Smith under Atlanta Braves
I’m risking us having to get the #BanHammer out again, but I do think this is a subject that needs to be discussed. The Braves should consider trading Craig Kimbrel. Before you jump down my throat, I’m not advocating they do it right now. I’m also not suggesting they do it for a bag of peanuts because he is the best reliever in the game. I’m also not saying they have to trade him. That’s what we are here to discuss. The Braves essentially have three choices with Kimbrel – sign him to an extension covering some free-agent seasons, take him year-to-year in arbitration or give him a contract that only covers those seasons, or trade him. Again, all of these scenarios are for AFTER this season because it doesn’t make sense to trade him now.
Why Trade Him to Begin With?
Craig Kimbrel is the best reliever in the game, and there’s no reason to think his performance so far has been fluky or unsustainable (other than the fact that he’s been so good that it’s hard to imagine him keeping it up). There are, however, reasons to consider moving him.
The first is pitcher attrition. Joakim Soria, Brian Wilson, Joe Nathan, Juan Carlos Oviedo, Jonathan Broxton, Neftali Feliz, Andrew Bailey, Sergio Santos, and Kyle Farnsworth are all closer-type relievers that have been injured for most of or entire seasons within the past few years, and while I’m not saying Kimbrel will definitely get hurt, it’s probably a more likely scenario than any of us would like to admit. I hate when players get hurt (in any situation), but we have to be realistic here.
The next reason is asking what price the Braves are likely to pay for his services. Below are some comparable contracts for closers reaching arbitration (purple) and beyond (orange – club options; green – free-agent contract).
If the averages hold true and is close to what Kimbrel receives, the Braves should have no problem affording Kimbrel’s production. But of course, arbitration works more off of comparables, which is why I separated Soria and Papelbon from the rest. Below is an fWAR comparison of their first three seasons (Note: I realize arbitration judges don’t use fWAR during cases. I’m using this as a shorthand because, well, Kimbrel does really well in saves, ERA, and getting awards. I just want to make a point of comparison.).
Kimbrel is not only comparable to those two, but he’s better than those two (and everyone else). Soria was signed to an extension at the same point in his career that Kimbrel is currently in. Papelbon went through arbitration year-by-year with no extension. If Kimbrel can be signed for the averages, that’s a lot of money but manageable, but if it’s closer to or above Papelbon (which Kimbrel will likely be able to argue), the risk mentioned above might be too great to spend over 10% of the budget (especially when other player’s salaries are beginning to escalate as well) on Kimbrel. Trading Kimbrel and also saving the millions he will cost would also net the Braves young players in return.
What Could the Braves Get in Return?
The above table refers to recent (somewhat) trades of closers. It doesn’t paint a very bright picture, but it’s worth mentioning that Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, and Andrew Bailey were the only ones traded at similar points in their careers, with Bailey the only one with a strong resume to that point (and his stock had declined due to an ERA that jumped almost 2 full runs). Bailey netted Reddick (not as highly thought of as he is now but solid), Miles Head (decent prospect whose stock was on the rise), and Raul Alcantara (filler). Kimbrel, as we’ve stated before, is a much better reliever than Bailey with a stronger resume, and he should require more in return.
To get a theoretical idea of what value Kimbrel has, let’s look at some projected values.
(Note: I used the average salaries above for the “Conservative” cost because, in that scenario, he’s not as good and wouldn’t require as much money. In the other scenarios, I used Papelbon’s comp because he will still have posted strong numbers even if it’s not as good as he had been. I suppose he could make less than this, but he has “precedent setter” written all over him. As for the values, I went with $5.25M, $5.5M, and $5.75M. It may not be precise, but it gives us an idea.)
If Kimbrel’s season isn’t so good this year, the “Conservative” estimate puts him at a surplus value around $13M. According to Victor Wang’s research, that means he’s worth a top pitching or hitting prospect that ranks in the 25-75 range on a Top 100 list. The Braves would be selling low as well in this scenario, and if Kimbrel only nets them one prospect, he’s not worth trading. Bailey’s trade would be the best comp there. Bailey’s ERA went up almost 2 runs, though his peripherals were still strong, and he netted more but less quality prospects in return. Reddick worked out wonderfully, but that wasn’t expected at the time. Again, in this situation, I’d keep Kimbrel to see if he bounced back and restored value before considering this again.
If Kimbrel has a very good but down season for him, we’ll look at the “Realistic” scenario. Oddly enough, Kimbrel’s value is pretty similar to the “Conservative” version because he’s likely to cost more as well. Because the perception of him is still likely to be positive, his value might be a little higher than $14M. In this scenario, netting a very top pitching prospect or a top 50 hitting prospect is more likely, and to help the deal be made, the Braves might also grab a lower-level prospect with some upside. At this point, I’m more likely to be enticed, but I’m probably hoping for a bidding war to up the reward. It depends on the offer.
In the “Optimistic” scenario, Kimbrel has repeated his brilliance for a third time, and his value is around $22M. At this point, a top 50 hitting prospect plus a lower 50 (in a Top 100) pitching prospect is a more likely scenario. A top 20 hitting prospect (though probably not a Top 10) is also a possibility with the chance at a lower-level flier on top of it. In all of these possibilities, the Braves would likely be looking for someone who was ready to perform at the MLB level, and the quality in return would probably be worth trading Kimbrel, clearing some salary, and filling a need elsewhere. At this point, the Braves may even be able to boost the value through the “He’s the Best in the Biz” tactic and grab a little extra value somewhere. As a further note, these trades for Kimbrel will be for quality, not quantity. It wouldn’t make sense to get 4 guys of little value in return.
Who could afford/need Kimbrel and have the pieces to fill holes (Note: the list below is simply prospects that the teams have who would fit the bill; these are not necessarily trade scenarios)?
But Let’s Say the Braves Keep Him?
Let’s say there are no acceptable trade scenarios. Here are the most applicable comps and some possible numbers through a seven-year deal (I chose seven because someone suggested it in the comments, and it went through Papelbon’s guaranteed years; five years is probably a better guess).
Those are the three most likely comps, and I gave you a few other scenarios. The “Average” and “Possible” arbitration years basically follow along Brian Wilson’s arb path, and I find that fairly realistic. Adding 2 years at $15M would bring the total to 5 years/$49 M. If Kimbrel is feeling frisky in negotiations and pushes the Papelbon comp, two more years at $15M would bring the total to 5 years/$57M. A creative solution would be a structure similar to the one used with Soria in which the arbitration years were guaranteed while the free-agent seasons were club options. Adding in club options while keeping higher salaries limits the risk for the Braves as they could decide whether or not their financial situation would allow them to keep a closer at that cost while locking in his arb years. Kimbrel would gain some security on the front end, but it is asking him to take some risk at the end as well as possibly leaving money on the table. He’ll be 29 when he “reaches” free-agency. Adding the two years after that still leaves him at the age of 31 and able to get another big contract. Papelbon chose to break records. Will Kimbrel? Only time will tell.
So Now What?
You’ll hate me for saying it, but it depends. A contract of using Wilson’s arb years for Kimbrel’s ($4.5M, $6.5M, $8.5M – $19.5M) plus 2 club options for $12M for a possible 5-year, $43.5M extension would be interesting and limits risk for the team. It’s impossible to know if either side would be amenable to this, however. It’s still a lot of money for a reliever, but Kimbrel’s earning power might also easily exceed this deal. If it gets more expensive than this, a trade is something worth considering. One can’t be sure if any of the teams from earlier would be interested in Kimbrel and willing to deal top prospects for a closer.
In the end, what I hope I’ve done is lay out the options. I’m not strictly advocating for either side, and I imagine that the Braves are likely to hold onto Kimbrel, making this mostly an academic exercise. But while trading an All-Star closer who may very well be the best in the game might not be the most popular one, it is something to consider for a team whose payroll may not skyrocket over the next five years. Heck, it’s probably something to consider regardless.