Remember Craig Kimbrel? Seven-time All-Star closer, big bushy beard, last seen with the Red Sox before vanishing into perpetual free agency? In all likelihood, these are his last days as an unwanted man.
As of midnight Sunday, the draft pick compensation tied to Kimbrel (via the qualifying offer he received from Boston) expired. As such, the final barrier to the 31-year-old reliever signing with a team vanished, and with it will come the end of Kimbrel’s bizarre free agency—one that lasted far longer than it should have. Yet that league-wide intransigence to give him a home could also create a busy market for him, as virtually every contender could use relief help, and unlike any trade deadline additions, all he’ll cost is money.
So which teams need Kimbrel the most? The better question is: Who doesn’t? It’s easier to eliminate the teams that have no use for him, most of which are rebuilders or last-place squads that he wouldn’t want to join in the first place. But that still leaves roughly half the league that could plug him into a bullpen mix and come away better because of it.
For those teams vying for him, Kimbrel would represent an instant ninth-inning solution and a huge upgrade in terms of high-leverage options. Last season, he posted a 2.74 ERA in 62 1/3 innings with 96 strikeouts, and that counts as a down season by his lofty standards. Kimbrel isn’t without warts: In those 62 1/3 frames, he walked 31; 2018 was his second season out of the last three with a walk rate of 4.5 per nine or higher. Similarly, his age—he turned 31 at the end of May—makes him a less-than-perfect bet going forward.
But the advance of time has yet to slow Kimbrel fully down. His fastball still zips in at 97 mph and touches triple digits, and his slider is a scythe that elicits goofy, blindfolded swings from hitters across the league. Kimbrel is one of the best, and even with a long layoff, he brings better stuff to the table than most pitchers can dream of boasting.
Unfortunately (and entirely because of their own reluctance to meet his terms), of those teams needing relief help, only one gets Kimbrel. Here are the five teams on which he’d make the biggest impact.
It’s weird to think that a team with Josh Hader in its bullpen needs help, but Kimbrel makes far too much sense for Milwaukee. With Corey Knebel out for the season and Jeremy Jeffress intermittently effective, ninth-inning leads have fallen to Hader, something he can and has handled with ease. But it’s a misuse of his talents. A multi-inning monster, the lefty is best suited to gobbling up six-to-eight outs at a time with the freedom to deploy at the game’s most crucial moment—i.e., not always the ninth. Craig Counsell still regularly uses Hader for three-plus outs, but his best bullpen weapon hasn’t entered a game this season before the eighth, whereas last season, he’d often pop up in the sixth or seventh if that’s what was required.
Signing Kimbrel to handle the ninth restores that flexibility, giving Counsell a similar setup as last year’s bullpen. He’d also be an upgrade over current setup options like Adrian Houser, Matt Albers and Junior Guerra. And with the Brewers’ rotation again patchwork, the team will need to rely heavily on its bullpen going forward. Kimbrel adds needed depth, making a first-place team that much stronger.
For a team on pace to win 110 games, the Dodgers have the bullpen of a much worse outfit. Kenley Jansen is amid a second straight ordinary season. Top offseason addition Joe Kelly has a 7.91 ERA in 19 1/3 innings. Setup man Pedro Baez is striking out fewer batters and allowing more hard contact than last year. The relief corps has a 4.79 ERA and its strikeout rate of 22.2% is seventh lowest in baseball.
In short, it’s a unit that could use a Kimbrel-sized boost. How he would fit is an open question; it’s unlikely the Dodgers boot Jansen from the ninth, and its unknown if Kimbrel would join a team where he wouldn’t close. But if he has no qualms with pitching earlier in the game, than he’s a no-brainer for a team with real World Series chances.
Plenty of teams need closers, or at least lack a set ninth-inning man. But some of those are by design, like Boston and Minnesota, which rotate through relievers in the ninth depending on matchups. Atlanta, though, has no such excuse for its fire drill of a bullpen. When you’re giving late-inning leads to Josh Tomlin and hoping that Luke Jackson and his career 4.70 ERA can close night in and night out, you need someone like Kimbrel. The Braves have been torn apart by injuries and poor performance, and despite a plethora of young arms, they haven’t found a stable working solution in the bullpen. A reunion here makes all the sense in the world.
Chicago started the season with meltdown after meltdown from its relievers, though the situation has stabilized since: The bullpen put up a respectable 3.52 ERA in May. But this is still a team that’s converted just half—11 out of 22—of its save opportunities. With nominal closer Brandon Morrow and fill-in Pedro Strop both on the injured list, Joe Maddon is relying on a skeleton crew to protect leads. He’ll grind Kimbrel into dust, but that’s better than having no one at all that you can rely on when the going gets tough.
There’s no shortage of contenders for the final spot here. Minnesota’s bullpen is good without a regular closer, but why not make it better with one? Boston could use its old closer back. Philadelphia needs better options for Gabe Kapler’s late-inning merry-go-round. The Nationals are a total disaster, though in truth, they need half a dozen Kimbrels.
In the end, the Mets' non-Edwin Diaz options are gruesome, and because as a marginal contender, every single advantage makes a difference. One win could be the difference between the postseason and an October spent at home. More than any other player, a shutdown closer can have the biggest impact in the shortest period of time. That’s what New York needs to stay afloat.