Craig Kimbrel came into this offseason with some wild expectations. Granted, he was well within his rights to expect the world considering he is one of the two or three best relievers to ever live, still in his prime, hitting free agency for the first time. Still, the rumored six-year, $100 million deal he was seeking at the start of the winter was obviously absurd. If you asked him off the record, I’m sure he’d tell you his side never really expected that deal to come to fruition. It was just a negotiation tactic. It’s better to start too high than start too low and all that jazz. Now in January, however, his market has cratered to a degree that he likely never saw coming. Team after team that could use a guy like him have come out and said they won’t spend big money on a reliever or they’ve simply signed other, cheaper options.
Whatever you want to point to for reasons as to why this is happening, and whether or not you think it’s fair, there’s no doubt that this has come out of left field for Kimbrel. Even if he wasn’t entirely sincere with that nine-figure demand in November, I doubt he ever expected to have to come down this much. We don’t know what the exact market is for the closer at the moment, though we have heard reports that it is “crazy low.” Given that information, it’s probably fair to assume Kimbrel’s personal morale is also on the low end right now. It’s gotta be tough to find out the game just doesn’t value you the way you expected. The deals on the table right now probably aren’t exciting him. Of course, at a certain point you have to sign something, because he’s not just going to retire. It sucks, but it’s the way it is.
The Red Sox, as we know, are among the few teams that are actually chasing the future Hall of Famer. It’s fair to assume they haven’t made a deal that would excite Kimbrel since, you know, he hasn’t signed any contract to stay in Boston. If they do want to make sure he comes back for another run with the team — and the replacement options are quickly coming off the board — they may need to get creative with their offer. This is where Scott Boras comes in.
Now, Kimbrel isn’t a Boras client, but you just can’t escape the super agent. There are a lot of opinions on Boras among baseball fans, but you can’t deny that he is among the best in the business. There’s a reason the game’s top talents flock to him. He has a reputation of getting his clients big deals, and when he isn’t able to he is often at the forefront of new trends to help players without larger guarantees. A few years ago, he was one of the agents popularizing opt outs littered throughout deals, a trend that exploded around the league. We saw it just last year with J.D. Martinez’ deal, that has an opt-out clause after each of the next three seasons. Now, there is a new sort of option revolution starting around the league.
It’s called the “swellopt,” and it is just a terrible name. Boras is a smart guy, but yikes he swung and missed on naming this one. Still, it’s a bit of a complicated idea that has started to become popular in the last two years. Basically, it gives both the team and the player options to make the deal work out better for them. These deals start with a basic contract with a few guaranteed seasons, then teams generally have an opportunity to tack on a few additional years on the back end. If they decline to do so, then the player has an option to tack on a year or two to the end of the deal.
There have been a few examples of this the last few years, with the most high-profile this winter coming from Japanese star Yusei Kikuchi. The southpaw, a Boras client, signed a contract with the Mariners last week, and it included this swellopt concept. In his deal, Kikuchi gets a base deal for three years and $43 million. After that third year, the Mariners have an opportunity to trigger a four-year extension worth $66 million. If they decline to do that, then Kikuchi has a choice to either add another year to the deal worth $13 million or he can elect to hit free agency. Jake Arrieta signed a similarly structured deal last year with the Phillies, and Zach Britton recently agreed to one of these contracts with the Yankees. All three of these players are Boras clients, but there is of course no reason this structure has to stick with one agent’s players.
The Red Sox don’t need to sign Craig Kimbrel, as there are other options available to them including just staying pat in the bullpen. If their main goal is to put the most talented team possible on the field, however, there’s no doubt that Kimbrel should be the priority at the moment. Any other option would result in a significant downgrade on the field. It’s clear that the market hasn’t met Kimbrel’s needs right now, and there’s no indication he’s going to rush into a deal he doesn’t like. When the Red Sox were waiting out Martinez a year ago, they eventually agreed to a deal that was loaded with the aforementioned opt-outs. Creativity was ultimately needed to get a deal done because Martinez was accepting less guaranteed money than he was expecting. Creativity is going to be needed again if they want to eventually sign Kimbrel, and the solution could be the horribly-named but smartly-conceptualized idea of the “swellopt.”