COMMENTARY | I came across a recent story suggesting that the Atlanta Braves should trade Craig Kimbrel by way of a Twitter reaction.
I'll paraphrase, but the Twitter user suggested that the author of said story was crazy.
And, to be honest, if you surveyed a hundred Braves fans, you would get the same reaction from 99 of them. You think we should trade Craig Kimbrel? You've either lost your mind or you need to stop eating those mushrooms you found on that hike.
But there is an unsavory reality that Kimbrel is going to end up costing far too much for the Braves to keep him long term. The business of baseball is often cold, harsh and uninterested in our emotions. Through arbitration and subsequent free agency, Kimbrel is going to become one of the highest-paid pitchers in the game. The Braves will not be able to construct a competitive roster if they are paying one relief pitcher a huge amount of money.
Kimbrel is an absolute monster of a relief pitcher who has put up two of the most dominant seasons imaginable in his first two full seasons with the Braves. Over 129 2/3 regular-season innings, Kimbrel has stuck out 214 batters, saved 92 games, and has a microscopic 1.11 ERA. He is as close to a sure thing as any closer in the game. All 30 managers would love to have him available as a bullpen weapon.
But, at the end of the day, he is a relief pitcher. Over the course of a full season, he will throw somewhere between a quarter and a third of the innings that a healthy starting pitcher will throw. Brilliant and dominant as he has been, his value is severely constrained by his usage.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez is one of the most notorious by-the-book managers in the game, and he deploys Kimbrel in a very specific situation, rarely utilizing him in higher-leverage situations. His perceived value is much higher than his actual performed value because of the incorrect weight that Gonzalez continues to put on the save statistic. It will take a lot more pouting before I forget that Kimbrel finished the 2013 postseason standing in the bullpen because Gonzalez was afraid to play him in anything but the most traditional save situation.
As for Kimbrel's present-day value, we can ponder a few examples to get an idea of just what he might cost. Jonathan Papelbon is currently working under a four-year, $50 million contract. Javier Lopez, a 36-year-old lefty coming off of a 39 1/3-inning season where he struck out 37 batters, is nearing a three-year deal with the San Fransisco Giants for around $13 million.
Kimbrel is far younger and far more dominant than either of those guys. His arbitration salary is going to be very illuminating, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him make $8 million in 2014. Of course, this number will jump even higher in his next 2 arbitration hearings, and Kimbrel could be making $15 million in the near term. That's a number that the Braves simply can't make work.
Look, Kimbrel is an elite relief pitcher that I would hate to see mowing down batters for anybody but the Braves. But his position is overvalued, and he is the best of the best at that position. It would take a major trade for the Braves to avoid a publicity disaster, but it's possible.
The Detroit Tigers have played the last several years in "win now" mode, and have also had serious problems with the back of their bullpen. Would it be so unexpected to hear them offer Rick Porcello or Drew Smyly and a blue-chip prospect like Nick Castellanos in exchange for that security? And how could the Braves turn them down?
Patrick Richardson is a longtime follower of the Atlanta Braves who started playing t-ball right as Atlanta's record-setting run of division titles began. He is an amateur but enthusiastic sabermetrician.
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