Free agent closer Craig Kimbrel wants to be the highest paid reliever in MLB history, and he’s willing to sit out the entire 2019 season to do it.
Craig Kimbrel was last seen closing out games for the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox. If he doesn’t get his way, it might be the last time baseball sees him for a while.
The free agent Kimbrel, who turns 31 in May, remains unsigned with clubs already in Spring Training. He’s reportedly looking for a six-year deal worth around $17 million a season, surpassing the reliever record $86 million contract Aroldis Chapman signed with the New York Yankees in 2016. Jim Bowden of The Athletic reports that if he doesn’t get that deal, the seven-time All-Star is preparing to sit out the entire 2019 season.
Missing an entire season would be a risky move for a pitcher of Kimbrel’s age. He already has a lot of mileage on his right arm, having saved 333 games in his nine-year career. He’s also two years older than Chapman was when the fireballing lefty signed his record deal. Another year added to the age column won’t convince teams Kimbrel is worth that kind of money.
Troubling signs that Kimbrel is on the downside of his career were apparent in 2018. While he finished the year with a 2.74 ERA and 42 saves for the Red Sox, he struggled in the second half with a 4.57 ERA. Those struggles carried over into the postseason, where he gave up seven runs in 10.2 innings despite Boston going on to win the championship.
Kimbrel struck out 38.9 per cent of batters faced last year, an 11 point drop from 2017. His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which measures ERA based on average defence, was 3.13, the worst of his career.
A return to Boston is increasingly unlikely. The Red Sox cannot sign Kimbrel without going over the luxury tax threshold. President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski insists the team will instead look at the pitchers already on their roster, including Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier, to fill the role Kimbrel occupied the last three seasons.
With Boston out of the running, the potential landing spots for Kimbrel are dwindling. The Houston Astros, already with one of the strongest bullpens in the league, are one possibility. If the Philadelphia Phillies miss out of Bryce Harper, they could try to salvage the offseason by signing a big-name reliever to a long-term deal.
Kimbrel better hope one of those teams is willing to open their pocketbooks because his chances of signing a rich free agent deal are slowly fading. In 2020 that deal would be even more difficult to come by.