Craig Kimbrel

John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

Kimbrel for 3 years, $50M makes sense for Phils

Tim Kelly
April 15, 2019 - 10:33 am

The Philadelphia Phillies bullpen was asked to pitch eight innings in Sunday’s game against the Miami Marlins. They responded about as well as they possibly could have, pitching eight scoreless innings, while striking out 14 Marlins in an eventual 14-inning win.

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Victor Arano, who opened the season with Triple-A Lehigh Valley after a disastrous Spring Training, was remarkable. Arano, 24, struck out all six batters he faced between the 12th and 13th innings. Seranthony Dominguez, despite working two 3-0 counts, struck out three of the four batters he faced in the 11th. And that followed two shutout innings from David Robertson, who the Phillies inked to a two-year/$23 million deal in January.

Gabe Kapler’s bullpen—which got off to an alarmingly slow start—has shown signs in recent games of rounding into form. Of course, you never want to close the door on adding a potentially elite arm.

Enter, seven-time All-Star Craig Kimbrel.

Kimbrel, who will turn 31 in May, is a free-agent after teams balked at his contract requests this offseason. He reportedly began the offseason looking for a deal in excess of $100 million over six years. After a brutal postseason—he posted a 5.91 ERA in nine appearances during the Boston Red Sox World Series run—he wasn’t going to touch that asking price. Over the weekend, Jim Bowden of The Athletic added that Kimbrel was still searching for a deal that would pay him $100 million over five seasons in March. If that’s the case, he’s not going to sign anytime soon.

However, Ken Rosenthal, also of The Athletic, reported something very different Saturday.

Per Rosenthal, Kimbrel is eyeing a deal that puts him somewhere in the neighborhood of the deals of Wade Davis and Zach Britton. Davis, a three-time All-Star, signed a three-year/$52 million deal with the Colorado Rockies ahead of the 2018 season. Britton, long connected to the Phillies, re-signed with the New York Yankees at a three-year/$39 million price this past offseason.

Kimbrel’s postseason struggles were a red flag—he may very well not ever pitch at the same level he did in 2017, when he posted a 1.42 FIP and 3.2 fWAR. That was a reason to be turned off by his initial asking price. But if he’s asking for $50 million over three seasons, you wouldn’t need him to pitch at the level of his peak.

Even if Kimbrel’s postseason left a bad taste in your mouth, he converted on 42 of 47 save attempts in 2018. He posted a 2.74 ERA and 3.13 FIP in 63 games. That type of production would allow the Phillies to install him in the ninth inning, while utilizing Seranthony Dominguez and David Robertson in whatever the highest-leverage situations are before the save situation.

The Phillies, according to Spotrac, have just under $17.5 million until they reach the luxury tax threshold. If Kimbrel were to sign a three-year/$50 million deal, it would essentially put the Phillies at the threshold. Even if his deal allowed the Phillies to stay just under the threshold, in signing him, the Phillies would have to commit to going over the luxury tax threshold in 2018, because they almost certainly will make a major addition to their starting rotation before the July 31 trade deadline.

The Phillies can afford to pay any luxury tax penalties. They also have Tommy Hunter, Juan Nicasio and Pat Neshek—who are making a combined $26 million in 2019—coming off the books after this season. But as their bullpen shows signs of coming together, it’s fair to wonder if general manager Matt Klentak and managing partner John Middleton will be keen on spending $15-$18 million annually on Kimbrel for three seasons, even if that asking price has drastically dropped over the past few months.

The guess here is Kimbrel won’t sign until after the MLB Draft concludes on June 5. If he signs before then, whichever team signing him would have to surrender draft compensation, because the Red Sox issued a qualifying offer to Kimbrel before he became a free-agent. What exactly that compensation would be would vary based on whether the deal exceeds $50 million in total value.

Besides the Phillies, the three teams most connected to Kimbrel have been the Milwaukee Brewers, Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves. All three of those teams could prevent the Phillies from reaching the postseason or potentially be postseason opponents. That shouldn’t be a reason why you sign someone to a major deal, but at least subconsciously, it probably factors in.  

In all likelihood, the Phillies don’t have to make a decision on whether to make a serious push for Kimbrel for at least a couple weeks. That should give them time to assess what they have in house.But if his price has dipped to a reasonable range, it would behoove them to continue monitor his market. They’ll be hard-pressed to add a more impactful player at any position this summer.