The Astros were never really major players for either of the big names on the free agent market this past winter, which made sense. They’re are one of the few teams in the league that could actually say there wasn’t a place in the infield for Manny Machado where he would be a clear improvement over their current options, thanks to Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Jose Altuve. There was a fun devil’s advocate case for signing Bryce Harper, but it never really got beyond that between the Astros’ depth of options in the outfield and the cost he was going to command.
But, there are still (somehow) a few big names left on the market. Other people here have talked about Keuchel, and I don’t want to retread that too much. But I did get to thinking recently about the other major pitcher still on the market: closer Craig Kimbrel.
The Case for signing Kimbrel
It’s worth noting that this would be a peak luxury for the team; the Astros are already projected to both run away with the division and have one of the better bullpens in the game. Nothing is guaranteed, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any impartial observer making a serious argument for any of their divisional rivals.
At the same time, there’s no major harm in improving even more, and 60+ innings of Kimbrel over the current-weakest link in the bullpen is probably the single greatest improvement the team can make at this point, short of sending away a few big prospects to make a splashy trade. And if Kimbrel is open to lowering his price, as has been reported, then this may become more feasible than any of us previously thought.
Kimbrel is obviously a fantastic pitcher, the kind any team would be thrilled to have in their bullpen. Both Fangraphs’ and Baseball-References’ versions of WAR have him averaging about 2.0 Wins the last two years, making him one the league’s best relievers. If you go by something more context-dependent, like Win Probability Added, he looks even better, averaging a hair over 4 wins the last two seasons and going from one of the best half-dozen or so relievers to the clear favorite.
And of course, there’s no harm in thinking ahead to October. Having Ryan Pressley or Roberto Osuna to pitch in your highest-leverage situations is good, but having another high-leverage option (and possibly one stronger than either of them, at that) is never bad. Plus, signing Kimbrel removes he possibility of seeing him in October on an opponent. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for him last postseason, but he did end up with three saves in the ALCS against the Astros, and he was among the Red Sox’s staff leaders in WPA for the entire postseason (not to mention that he got stronger after the team found out that he was tipping pitches). Half a win added (or more) in the playoffs is nothing to sneeze at, especially when it’s likely coming from someone in direct competition for the World Series.
The Case against signing Kimbrel
Cost is the single biggest reason against Kimbrel. We have rumors that his cost has come down, but there’s still no hard evidence of what that means specifically.
Maybe he’s willing to take a large one-year deal and re-enter the market next year; that’s probably the preferred situation for the Astros, who will have to make room in the budget next year for Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, and others as well as dealing with arbitration increases for younger players.
Things get a lot harder to work around on a two-year deal, although not necessarily out of the question. Of course, you have Justin Verlander ($20 million in 2019) and Gerrit Cole ($13.5 million) hitting free agency, and it will take a lot of money to resign them, but how much more than their current $33.5 million will that be? And while Jose Altuve’s extension kicks in, giving him a raise of $19.5 million, there are plenty of players coming off the books in 2020 as well, at least $38 million worth. That’s not factoring in arbitration, which is a whole other thing. Basically, in this case, payroll will jump, but you can keep most of the core pieces together and bring in Kimbrel.
Anything longer than that will become much harder to work around, though, as George Springer, Carlos Correa, and the rest of the young core begins to reach free agency successively in the years following that. So this basically has to be a one- or maybe two-year deal.
Assuming that Kimbrel does want to go down to a short deal, and there aren’t still three- or four-year deals on the table that he’s still weighing, how much would it cost per season for the Astros to get in the discussion? Given the current largest deals for relievers (Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen with 5 years each, with AAVs of $17.2 and $16 million, respectively), plus Josh Donaldson’s record show-me deal this winter (1 year, $23 million), I think it’s fair to say we’d probably be working with $20 million or more.
That’s a lot to guarantee to one reliever, but if there’s anyone worth it, it’s Craig Kimbrel. And it’s not like it would be a long-term commitment that would ruin the team for years if it goes south, either. I would probably make a one-year offer like that, and if ownership was willing to sign off on a slightly higher payroll for 2020, it might be worth it to go up to two years (although that still feels like it would be pushing things, given the number of other large extensions that will need to be considered).
However, I also suspect that he has more guaranteed money (albeit at a lower AAV) on the table already elsewhere, and would rather go with that. Maybe not, though; this has been a weird offseason, as far as free agent contracts go. Maybe, as a closer, he doesn’t reach the top tier of free agents (which seems mostly unaffected), and instead falls into the next tier down, where some players seem to have struggled to find deals to their liking. And if that is the case, it could be worth throwing out a line to see if he bites. It might be a little excessive, given the talent already on the roster, but a little gold plating can be nice every once in a while.
What would be the maximum deal you would offer to Craig Kimbrel?
This poll is closed
Not worth pursuing, even on a one-year deal