The Braves continued their trend of locking up the premium talent they have managed to develop by signing closer Craig Kimbrel to an extension that buys out his three arbitration years, as well as one free agent year with a team option for a second free agent year. The deal breaks down as $7 million for year one (2014), $9 million (2015), $11 million (2016), and then $13 million for the first free agency year (2017) with a team option for another $13 million season (2018) with a $1 million buyout if the option is not exercised. The deal is an excellent extension for the team, though it is certainly the most surprising of Frank Wren’s recent splurges, as the general mood had been that Kimbrel wasn’t long for Atlanta.
First off, the deal, in a practical sense, was the Braves “winning” their arbitration case with Kimbrel. The young closer had asked for $9 million in his first year of arbitration, and now, he won’t receive that until his second season. The Braves will pay Kimbrel $27 million for his three arbitration years, which definitively represents a discount from what they would have paid if they had lost their 2014 hearing. The Braves bought this discount by assuming the risk of guaranteeing Kimbrel’s salary, but those are the kinds of risks budget conscious teams like the Braves have to assume.
Kimbrel is in the midst of the best start to his career any closer has ever had, and the risk was very real that his unprecedented success would have been rewarded by an unprecedented payday in arbitration. As it stands, he will make more money in his first arbitration season than any closer ever, but the price isn’t far beyond what Jonathan Papelbon and Eric Gagne made as to make the deal unpalatable to the Braves. Also, when considering both monetary inflation and the massive inflation of salaries within baseball, Kimbrel’s deal doesn’t really represent an earth-shaking payday for a closer who has reached arbitration.
The $13 million the Braves will pay Kimbrel for his first year of free agency is a hefty price tag to be sure, but it’s not an unreasonable cost for the best relief pitcher in baseball. The final option deal is nothing but win for the Braves as they have the choice to either keep the best closer in the game at a reasonable price or cut ties relatively cheaply if Kimbrel’s value has fallen off at that point.
The final point is, of course, the big risk the Braves are assuming with the Kimbrel deal. All pitchers are vulnerable to sudden catastrophic injury and closers even more so. Eric Gagne was once everything Craig Kimbrel has been recently, and Gagne even won a Cy Young award as the closer in Los Angeles. Gagne won the 2003 Cy Young award while converting a ridiculous streak of 84 consecutive saves. In 2005, though, Gagne blew out his elbow and his career was essentially over. ESPN insider Keith Law has argued that projecting a closer 4 years into the future is an utter impossibility, and therefore, the Braves are fooling themselves if they think they can have any realistic idea of what Kimbrel will be worth by the time his free agent years arrive.
All of this is to say the risk with Kimbrel is very real. For three years, the 25-year-old flamethrower has been the unquestioned best closer in baseball. It doesn’t matter what metric you use to measure pitchers, Kimbrel leads closers in all of them. If you examine saves, ERA, FIP, WAR, strikeouts, strikeout percentage, etc., they all come up with Kimbrel in pole position, and the majority of the comparisons are not close.
If any closer is worth taking the risk on it is Craig Kimbrel. Sure he is one catastrophic injury away from sticking the Braves with an impossible to offload lemon, but this is true of all pitchers. The Braves have to be smart about where to gamble and with Kimbrel they are gambling on the best closer in the game in his prime years. It is a good deal that buys the Braves some more cost certainty for their run at a title with the current core, and of course, if the Braves do decide at some point that paying such a high rate for a sixty inning specialist no longer makes sense, nothing about this deal makes a dominant reliever like Kimbrel difficult to trade.