Craig Kimbrel may well be the most sought after free-agent reliever of this offseason. Many teams would love to have a relief ace of his caliber, and are willing to pay plenty in order to get it. However, early in the offseason, Kimbrel announced that he wanted a deal that would last for the next six seasons. Craig Kimbrel’s dominance has been felt for nearly a decade now, but is even that enough to justify giving a deal that long term to a member of baseball’s least consistent position?
Since the start of 2010, there is no question as to who the best reliever in baseball has been. In that time, no relief pitcher has accumulated a higher WAR via baseball-reference than Kimbrel. He also has the highest era+ of any reliever, with a score of 211. That means that, over nine seasons, he has been twice as good at preventing runs than an average player would have. He has more saves than any other active pitcher. He has a career WHIP below 1.000, both an ERA and FIP below 2.00, and a K/9 of 14.7. Nobody has come close to approaching his level of dominance since his career began, and, when it is all said and done, he will go down as one of the greatest relief pitchers of all time.
While Kimbrel’s 2018 season wasn’t his best, it also was far from his worst. His WAR was the 14th best in all of the Major Leagues, he gave the Red Sox crucial innings all year that would eventually lead to their World Series victory. That being said, Kimbrel’s FIP, ERA, and WHIP were all higher than his career average, while his K/9 and ERA+ were both well lower. All of these were still well above average, but they also aren’t quite on the same level as what we have come to expect. While this by itself wouldn’t be concerning, the fact that it happened the same year that he broke the 30 barrier possibly is. While there is a chance that it was just a down year, and that his few injuries may have contributed, it doesn’t help that he is now past the age that is universally considered to be when player’s skills begin to fade, especially in the case of relievers. There is of course a chance that he will still be dominant for another decade, as we saw with Mariana Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, but there is never a guarantee.
Despite his age, there really is no reliever more deserving of the deal he’s asking for than Kimbrel. The biggest problem with it isn’t Kimbrel himself, but rather the fact that it may be impossible for any reliever to warrant a deal of that caliber. While his WAR is the best among relievers, its only the 25th highest since 2010 among all pitchers. Set it too include all players, and suddenly he drops all the way to 100th. Relievers simply do not provide enough value to warrant the amount of money he’s asking. His WAR last season was 2.0, which is said to be the amount that an average position player starter gets. If he was providing that value from third-base, nobody would even consider giving him the level of money or time he’s asking for.
The other issue with relievers is how steeply they decline. Every year, there are at least one or two closer’s who had been amazing the year before who struggle to then point of being traded or cut. Since he is past the 30 year old mark, there is no telling if or when Kimbrel is going to suddenly stop being able to contribute. Although he currently is one of the most trustworthy relievers in baseball, there’s no guarantee that he won’t suddenly loose that as early as next year. With that level of risk involved, it seems hard to justify giving an expensive, long term deal to him. Maybe it would work out, but there is still a chance that he’ll only be able to play well for half of it.
Kimbrel certainly has proven he’s no ordinary reliever. Maybe he is good enough to stay great for another six seasons or more. Certainly, any team that gives him the deal he’s asking would be happier giving it to him than any other closer. That said, there are a huge number of risks involved, and any GM is going to know that. There’s no way of telling how it’d pan out, but any team that does decide they want him long term should seriously think it through. He’s a great player, but there’s no telling how long he’ll be able to stay great.