Why Is Craig Kimbrel Still a Free Agent With Opening Day Just Ten Days Away?

Craig Kimbrel is one of baseball's most dominant relievers, but remains unsigned as of Monday morning. When and where will he finally sign? Or will he continue to sit out even after the season starts?
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Does anyone need a closer? That’s the question Craig Kimbrel has been asking since November, but with Opening Day rapidly approaching, the answer from all 30 teams has been a resounding “No.” Despite being the best reliever on the market, the 30-year-old righty remains unsigned. As with Dallas Keuchel, who’s also still searching for a new team, the question now becomes if Kimbrel can find a landing spot before the season begins.

On the surface, it makes zero sense that Kimbrel is still a free agent. The owner of 333 career saves—the most of any active player—he’s been a lights-out weapon out of the bullpen since his first full season in the big leagues. Kimbrel is a seven-time All-Star, boasts a career strikeout-per-nine rate of 14.7, and has seen his ERA exceed 3.00 just once. Last year, he punched out 96 batters in 62 1/3 innings for Boston, racking up 42 saves and a 2.74 ERA—and that was a step down from 2017’s phenomenal 1.43 ERA and 126 strikeouts in 69 innings.

The secret to Kimbrel’s success is easy: he throws a fastball that sits at 97 mph and a loopy slider that whips through the strike zone. That latter pitch is borderline untouchable: Opposing hitters managed a pathetic .082 batting average against it last season, with a swing-and-miss rate of 56.1%. Add those two offerings together, and you have a player who ranked sixth among all qualified relievers last season in strikeout rate (38.9%), fourth in batting average against (.145), and fifth in swinging-strike rate (17.2%). That’s not someone who should be unemployed in late March.

Even with those gaudy numbers, Kimbrel’s 2018 season wasn’t perfect. The closer walked 31 batters, an average of 4.5 per nine. That’s a huge jump from 2017’s 1.8 per nine—and the second season out of the last three where Kimbrel has surpassed the 4.5 mark. He struggled to throw strikes all season, but his biggest bout of wildness came during Boston’s postseason run. Over October, he allowed seven runs, two homers, eight walks and two hit batters over 10 2/3 innings. Twice—in the clinching game of the Division Series against the Yankees and in Game 4 of the ALCS against the Astros—he nearly blew it in the ninth, both times requiring great defensive plays to get out of trouble He was anything but automatic (though the issue may have been connected to pitch-tipping).

The other issue so far has been price. Back in December, Kimbrel’s camp reportedly sought as much as $100 million over six years. That was never going to happen: The record for a reliever in free agency is Aroldis Chapman, who scored five years and $86 million from the Yankees two years ago in an ownership-driven deal that was driven by ownership. Chapman was also younger than Kimbrel when he signed (he was entering his age-29 season; Kimbrel will be 31 in May), had fewer innings on his arm (377 versus 532 2/3), and threw harder. Then again, it’s hard to imagine Kimbrel’s ask was anything other than a starting point for negotiations.

Regardless of how much Kimbrel wants, no team has been willing to meet him even part of the way there. At the beginning of March, Red Sox infielder Brock Holt told the Boston Herald’s Michael Silverman that his former teammate had no offers. It’s increasingly bizarre since a plethora of teams who could use Kimbrel’s help, including his old one. As of now, the closer gig in Boston belongs to Matt Barnes, who is the supermarket-brand version of Kimbrel. Worse for the Sox, their bullpen depth is wire thin: The team opted not to sign anyone to replace either Kimbrel or the departed Joe Kelly, leaving Boston to assemble a hodge-podge relief corps that features perilously few dependable or above-average arms.

And it’s not just the Red Sox who could use Kimbrel. His old team in Atlanta is relying on the perpetually shaky Arodys Vizcaino in the ninth inning and is already down two setup men in A.J. Minter and Darren O’Day, both sidelined with arm trouble. The Angels opted to plop Cody Allen, coming off a brutal 2018, into their closer role atop a weak bullpen. The Cubs’ bullpen has been hit hard by injuries, with Brandon Morrow out until at least May and Pedro Strop, Tony Barnette and Xavier Cedeño all ailing. The Rockies are trusting the terminally washed-up Wade Davis (a 4.13 ERA and 26 walks in 65 1/3 innings last year) to finish games. The Nationals’ options behind Sean Doolittle were either ineffective (Kyle Barraclough) or hurt (Trevor Rosenthal) last season. And on and on it goes.

Kimbrel could help any one of a number of teams, and all it would cost is money. But as with Keuchel, Kimbrel has the poor luck of hitting free agency right as teams decide that spending money isn’t a major priority. Worse, he does so at a position that teams have already long been wary of investing heavily in: closer. And in this era, closers—even the elite ones—increasingly represent a luxury purchase instead of a necessity for contenders. Why spend big on a 65-inning pitcher when you can pluck one of a seemingly endless number of pitchers in your system who can throw 95 mph with mind-bending breaking balls? Savvy teams can build their own Kimbrels—or at least, 85% of him at 15% of the price.

Still, it remains silly that, at any price, Kimbrel hasn’t signed given how good and dependable he’s been. But there’s been precious little chatter so far in March about a team for him, and it’s increasingly looking like not one of the 30 Opening Day rosters will feature him. If that’s the case, how long will it be until fans see him trot in from the bullpen?

One possibility, as suggested by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal: midseason. In a column from March 11, Rosenthal quotes an unnamed executive who thinks Kimbrel could wait until after the draft in June to find a team. First, it would allow Kimbrel to shed the draft pick compensation tied to him by rejecting Boston’s qualifying offer back in November; second, he could sell himself as a second-half upgrade for a team that’s struggling in the ninth or that lost its closer. The risk would be enormous in signing a pitcher who hasn’t thrown competitively in almost a year, but as a reliever, Kimbrel likely wouldn’t need as long as a starter to return to form. Last spring, he threw just two innings in Grapefruit League play; in years previous, he hasn’t topped single digits. He could be ready in as little as a couple of weeks after signing.

It’s unclear how realistic this option is, but it says a lot about this messed-up market that one of the best relievers in MLB history may end up watching games from his couch for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, Kimbrel finds a team sooner rather than later.