's new $42 million deal is the highest ever for a non-free-agent reliever. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
On Friday, the Braves announced that Julio Teheran had agreed to a six-year, $32.4 million extension, the third multi-year deal they've handed out this month to one of their core young players. On Sunday, they secured another key youngster, signing closer Craig Kimbrel to a four-year, $42 million deal, the largest ever for a non-free-agent closer.
In three-plus seasons in the majors, the 25-year-old Kimbrel has established himself as the game's most dominant closer, putting up a microscopic 1.39 ERA while striking out an eye-popping 15.2 per nine innings, and helping the Braves to a pair of Wild Card appearances and an NL East flag. After getting his feet wet with 21 appearances in 2010, he took over the Braves' ninth inning duties the following year, and since then, he has led the NL in saves in each season, averaging 46 per year, with a career high of 50 in 2013. He won the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2011, and has earned All-Star honors in all three of his full seasons. His 16.7 strikeouts per nine in 2012 set a record for pitchers with at least 50 innings in a season, breaking that of the Dodgers' Kenley Jansen (16.1 in 2011), who himself had toppled the year-old record of the Cubs' Carlos Marmol (16.0). Kimbrel struck out 50.2 percent of the hitters he faced that year, the first time a qualifying pitcher had ever broken the 50-percent barrier. His career mark of 43.2 percent is also a record.
Kimbrel was eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, and figured to cash in handsomely whether or not his case — scheduled to be heard roughly 24 hours before the agreement was announced — went to a hearing. His agent submitted a $9 million figure, while the Braves made an offer of $6.55 million. Based on the year-by-year breakdown reported by CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, the team must have figured it would wind up on the short end, for Kimbrel will receive a base salary of $7 million for 2014 plus a signing bonus of $1 million. He'll make $9 million in 2015, $11 million in 2016, and $13 million in 2017, which would have been the first year he was eligible for free agency. His contract includes a $13 million option for 2018 with a $1 million buyout. According to the Associated Press, his contract also includes an escalator clause based on a points system:
He would earn five points each time he's an All-Star, 10 for winning a Cy Young Award, five for finishing second or third in Cy Young, three for finishing fourth or fifth in Cy Young, five for being the top Cy Young voter-getter among pitchers with fewer than five starts; 10 for winning an MVP award, five for finishing second or third in MVP, third for finishing fourth or fifth in MVP, and three for each season with 57 or more games finished.
Kimbrel would be paid $1 million for 20 points and $500,000 for each additional five points through 45.
Including both the option and the escalators, his contract could be worth a maximum of $58.5 million over five years, which would surpass Jonathan Papelbon's four-year, $50 million deal as the largest ever for a reliever. Without those boosts, the deal is the sixth-largest ever for a reliever, behind those of Papelbon, Joe Nathan ($47 million for 2008-11), Francisco Cordero ($46 million for 2008-11), Mariano Rivera ($45 million for 2008-10) and Billy Wagner ($43 million for 2006-09). The $10.5 million average annual value ranks 11th for a reliever, though eight of the ones with higher AAVs have expired as the industry has taken a more rational approach towards such salaries. Updating the trend that I've noted several times this winter, of the 28 deals exceeding $7 million per year for relievers, just eight are currently in effect, including that of Kimbrel:
Thanks to his dominance, Kimbrel's odds of justifying that salary are higher than most. In his three full years, he's been worth a total of 9.0 Wins Above Replacement, 0.9 more than the next highest reliever (David Robertson) and 3.0 more than the next highest NL reliever, Aroldis Chapman. He's been worth 3.3 WAR in each of the past two years. At the going rate of $5.45 million per win on the free agent market, his performance over the 2011-2013 stretch has been worth an average of $16.35 million per year, not accounting for inflation, and his worst season, 2.4 WAR in 2011, has been worth $13.1 million, just above the maximum salary of this deal. Strikeout rate is the best indicator of future success for a pitcher; the more bats he can miss, the longer he's likely to stick around. While there's always a risk of injury when it comes to any pitcher, Kimbrel has room to regress at least somewhat before this contract turns into a losing proposition.
Kimbrel's extension is the fourth that Braves general manager Frank Wren has completed this month, following those of Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Teheran. Freeman's deal was by far the largest of the bunch, a franchise-record eight-year, $135 million contract that extends all the way into what would have been his fifth year of free-agent eligibility. Teheran's deal runs through his first year of free agency, while Heyward's two-year, $13.3 million deal covers his final two years of arbitration eligibility. As noted on Friday, it's no coincidence that these extensions are happening in the team's first offseason since hiring John Hart as a special advisor to Wren. As the GM of the Indians from 1992-2001, Hart pioneered the strategy of buying out key players' arbitration years, saving millions of dollars by trading risk for cost certainty and thereby locking in the prime years of Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel and Sandy Alomar, Jr.
While the Braves play in a much larger market than the Indians, they have one of the worst TV deals in the game and thus need to keep their payroll in the middle of the pack, at least until they start reaping the increased revenue from their new ballpark in 2017. Last year's Opening Day payroll was just $90.0 million (18th in the majors), and while they'll likely push past that, they're unlikely to reach $100 million for the first time since 2008. With Kimbrel's deal, they'll have $89.2 million committed to 17 players, with the rest accounted for by players who have not yet reached arbitration.
Because it's a higher salary over a shorter term for a more volatile class of player, Kimbrel's extension is a significantly bigger risk than that of Teheran. Still, given how sky-high his salary could have soared with two more years of arbitration, the Braves were better off locking him in at a price they could afford instead of going year-to-year.