Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Embrace the Rebuild and Consider a Kimbrel Trade

It's tempting when you have the best player at his position to want to keep him as long as possible. In football, if you have the best quarterback, you'll pay him whatever he wants and hope his success will compensate for a lack of depth on defense. In baseball, if you have the best pitcher, you give him whatever he desires. After all, you cannot replace Clayton Kershaw.

So, it is understandable that Craig Kimbrel was labelled untouchable and safe from being moved, according to WSB's Zach Klein in mid-November. Since becoming the Braves' closer four years ago, Kimbrel has saved 185 games, nearly 50 more than the next best total. Among relievers, he's K'd 436, or 25 more than the next pitcher on the list. His 1.51 ERA tops the list, slightly ahead of our old pal Eric O'Flaherty and only one pitcher tops Kimbrel's 0.88 WHIP. All the while, he has been incredibly durable, throwing the 8th most innings out of the pen in the 11th most games.

Last winter, Kimbrel was one of the players handed long-term extensions during Frank Wren's final offseason with the Braves. He earned $7M last year as part of the deal and is owed $9M in 2015, $11M in 2016, and $13M in 2017. In 2018, there exists a club option that would pay Kimbrel an additional $13M with a $1M buyout in case the option wasn't exercised. So, on the light end, Kimbrel is owed $34M over the next three seasons.

That's $34M the Braves would paying a guy to close games for a team that might not be competitive.

Pretty clear where I'm headed, right? Strike now and deal away Kimbrel if someone is willing. Don't give him away, but if there is a deal out there with a good return, take it.

Uh, you just said he's the best at this position. Shouldn't we want the best?

Most of the time, absolutely. You want the best center fielder (gotta work on that). You want the best starter (or second best since Kershaw is kinda locked up). You even want the best closer, but only if your team can optimize his talent. Closing the game is an often overrated "skill," but it pays handsomely and teams often are thoroughly concerned about what will happen if they are competitors that lack a shutdown guy. For a team rebuilding, though, a closer is not a necessity, but a luxury. The Phillies, for instance, are paying a considerable sum for Jonathan Papelbon. While an ass, he has been pretty good at his job. However, since joining Philly, his teams have won 81 games and 73 twice. Yet, in that time, he has been paid $37,000,058 and will get another $13M next year for a team largely considered to be, at best, a threat to finish .500.

Seems like a waste to me. That's $13M that Ruben Amaro Jr. could have sunk into someone who's older than 34.

Let me be clear. Kimbrel's not overpaid and the Braves won't be able to replace his talent. I think I pointed out how good those talents are. Let me add that I don't even know a team that it would make sense to deal Kimbrel to right now. The Yankees could use him, but would the Braves get the haul they must get in prospects from them? I doubt that. I don't want this to sound like a plea to trade Kimbrel asap. I'd rather keep him if there's no high-end package of talent coming Atlanta's way.

Also, it's worth noting that trading closers doesn't often bring back all that much. Last season, all the White Sox received for Addison Reed was Matt Davidson. Now, Davidson was a top-100 prospect before falling on his face last year, but Reed had four years of team control and was coming off a 40 save season. One B+ prospect for a pretty good closer who was 14th in fWAR among relievers that season? Back in the 2007-08 offseason, the Astros got a trio of players, led by Michael Bourn, for one year of control for Brad Lidge, but that example is a bit outdated and Bourn was the only piece that eventually became productive out of the trade.

If not now, maybe things could open up during the season. The Rangers picked up a pair of former high draft choices in pitchers Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel last July. Thompson is a starter with intriguing strikeout rates while Knebel is a reliever with incredible ratios, but neither jumped off the page as significant prospects. At the deadline in 2010, the Nationals picked up pitcher Joe Testa and a catcher for Matt Capps. Testa washed out, but the catcher, Wilson Ramos, would develop into a talented, if not often-injured, starter behind the plate. He was also a solid B to B+ prospect at the time of the trade.

A three-team deal with a flurry of moving parts might bring more Atlanta's way, though Atlanta would probably be moving more than just Kimbrel. Of course, the Braves could choose to go beyond a swap of Kimbrel and prospects and package another piece or two with Kimbrel. That's always a possibility especially if it helps the Braves acquire marquee talent.

Clearly, if Atlanta trades Kimbrel, there must be a high price tag that someone has met because other trades involving closers didn't bring in a return I think many fans, including myself, feel a player of Kimbrel's abilities deserve. You would think that once David Robertson, the best closer on the market, signs with a team this winter, teams would be desperate with only one other "closer" available in the form of Francisco Rodriguez. K-Rod was good for the Brewers last year, but I don't think anyone's knocking each other over to attain his services. Sergio Romo and Rafael Soriano both were relieved of their closing duties last season so that's like tainted meat. Still, the sad fact that the market is so shallow also means so few teams are looking.

Maybe a team of the rise could be interested. Both Houston and the Cubs have a large cache of prospect talent, but neither seems like they are ready to make the jump and land a final piece to the puzzle like Kimbrel.

So, don't trade Kimbrel? Is that what you are saying?

No, not exactly. If there is an unlikely deal with a couple of big time prospects out there, take it. It's probably not there and Atlanta can't give away a commodity like Kimbrel. Maybe a team overreacts to an injury or ineffective play of their closer this season and is willing to pony up to the Braves' demands. If it's there, make it happen. Closers are a luxury and they definitely make things all tidy and defined in the pen, but are they needed? Well, the Giants won the World Series without their closer picking up the all important save in any game of the series...so, there's that.

I started this post with the idea that I would be convinced that trading Kimbrel was the sensible and smart thing to do. My mindset is simple. Closers are overrated and overpaid. That's my personal feeling and the market, nor the game of baseball, agrees with me. In Out of the Park, my theory checks out. I traded Kimbrel to save money and replaced him with a three-headed monster - a closer-by-committee - and it worked out the way I wanted. Three pitchers got around 15 or so saves and three others picked up about 3-5 of them. Kimbrel had a great year with Houston, the team I sent him to, and the prospects I acquired gave my system a shot in the arm. It worked out perfectly there.

But in real life, trading a closer is much more difficult and getting the return you desire is tricky. Kimbrel is a special case, just like he was in the build up to an arbitration hearing that ultimately did not happen. Trading him - while the move I would do in my head - is probably not the smart play unless a team gets desperate. Really desperate. Like day before the Prom desperate. And unfortunately, the right guy to make that trade is not only in Philly, but has little to offer.

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