Three days after being freed of the penalties that come with being offered and declining the qualifying offer, Craig Kimbrel signed a three-year, $45 million deal with a $22 million vesting option with the Cubs. Kimbrel is the best relief pitcher the Cubs have ever had and will bolster their bullpen during the playoff stretch, if not immediately.
This is an enormous missed opportunity for the Sox. The bullpen was a glaring weakness coming into spring, but has tread water thanks to the emergence of Marcus Walden and some good performances by Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree. Unfortunately, it’s going to be difficult to keep that pace up with Brandon Workman walking six batters per nine innings and Heath Hembree giving up dingers at his current rate (1.3 per nine innings). Even if Cora eases up on Walden, who’s already tossed 39 ⅔ innings, there’s no telling how he’ll perform the rest of the way. When Workman and Hembree come crashing down to Earth, having Kimbrel to cushion the blow would ensure the regression doesn’t come in meaningful situations.
If the Sox stay in the playoff race, they’re going to need to trade for a reliever anyway, which brings up two problems. One, the reliever you’re acquiring isn’t going to be as good as Kimbrel. Additionally, when you have the choice to spend money or trade prospects, you should ALWAYS spend the money. Even after a good draft in 2018, Boston came into the year with the worst farm system in baseball. Even after having what I consider to be an excellent draft, this is likely going to stay the case until these players mature enough to get significant enough playing time in full-season ball to either flame out or prove their worth.
The most upsetting thing about this is that contrary to what the beats have parroting, this is the same contract he’s been asking for since April. Six years, $100 million hasn’t been a discussion since Christmas time. This offer was outstanding for two months, without the excuse of losing a draft pick, and they stood idly by because they’re terrified of exceeding the highest tier of the competitive balance tax threshold, for which there is no excuse not to throttle past. This franchise is worth billions of dollars and John Henry is literally too rich to describe. I did the math and found that signing Kimbrel to this contract would bring a CBT penalty of $28,423,948.75, which if you count that towards the opening day payroll, barely eclipses the Dodgers 2015 opening day payroll. This is totally acceptable for a team as big as Boston coming off a World Series victory where they raked in an absurd amount of profit. If you have a problem with this, you’re thinking about baseball the wrong way. The Red Sox raked in money from tickets, which are the highest priced in baseball, regional television rights fees, and several other facets. All in all, this leads to $516 million in total revenue for the 2018 season.
Some might be concerned about how Kimbrel will age, which brings up something I was taught a few years ago: players starting at higher peaks will have a better decline than mediocre players. In other words, Kimbrel might be the greatest pitch-for-pitch closer of all time. A decline phase from him might see him striking out only 30% of batters and maybe an ERA a little north of 3.00. And if for some reason Kimbrel blows his shoulder out and hits rock bottom, it’s only a three year contract that won’t hamstring Boston in anyway whatsoever. For the past handful of years, the Sox have spent in free agency despite at one point or another paying Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Allen Craig, and Rusney Castillo tens of millions of dollars in dead money.
It’s not a large sample, but we’ve seen how pitchers who miss spring training perform. No matter what kind of work they’re doing in their own time, pitchers are going to need time to get ready, which really is a reason why he should’ve been signed in April. Nonetheless, it’ll be worth it for a rested Kimbrel to be ready for the stretch run in September.
Every excuse for letting Kimbrel walk was always disingenuous or, at worst, very dumb. The numbers for the Red Sox bullpen might look fine now, but when the unsteady foundation holding those numbers up crumbles, the Sox are going to wish they had Kimbrel to lean on.