Just one month ago, free agent relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel had not received a single contract offer from a Major League Baseball team, at least according to his former Boston Red Sox teammate Brock Holt. Holt told The Boston Herald that he had spoken to Kimbrel, who told him about the absence of any team interested in his services.
But on Saturday night, ESPN baseball expert Keith Law reported via Twitter that Kimbrel was not only in negotiations with the Washington Nationals, but that those talks were “further down the road” than had been previously reported.
Earlier on Saturday, baseball journalist Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic first reported that the Nationals were showing interest in signing the 30-year-old Kimbrel, who leads all active Major League closers with 333 career saves. Rosenthal also said that the Atlanta Braves — the team that drafted Kimbrel in 2008 and with whom he spent the first five seasons of his big league career — were also looking at making Kimbrel an offer. But any Braves contract would likely involve fewer guaranteed years than Kimbrel is seeking, Rosenthal reported.
MLB Network reporter Jon Heyman chimed in on Twitter to report that the Philadelphia Phillies, despite their Thursday signing of former Nationals All Star Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract, were also willing to “look into” a Kimbrel signing. But the Phillies, too, would offer only a short-term contract, Heyman said.
“The urgency to a strike a deal with the flamethrower, especially for teams in the stacked NL East, has now heightened substantially,” wrote Ty Bradley of the MLB Trade Rumors site on Saturday.
While Kimbrel leads all active relievers in saves, and was a key factor in Boston’s World Series championship in 2018, his noticeable decline last season may have caused some hesitancy among teams to meet Kimbrel’s demand for a long-term commitment. His strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate of 13.9, while impressive, was his lowest since 2015, his one season with the San Diego Padres, according to Baseball Reference stats.
While Kimbrel recorded 42 saves in 2018, his highest total since 2014 with Atlanta, he often did so in nail-biting fashion, allowing a 13.6 percent walk rate, or 4.48 per nine innings, according to Fangraphs, his second-highest rate since his rookie year in 2010. In addition, he allowed 1.01 home runs per nine innings pitched — easily the highest rate of his career.
Signing Kimbrel would be costly for the Nationals. According to Roster Resource data, Washington has less than $4.6 million to spend before they hit MLB’s $206 million “luxury” payroll tax cap for the third year in a row. That means the Nationals would be forced to pay a 50 percent tax on any payroll over the $206 million limit.
An earlier MLB Trade Rumors report said that Kimbrel was seeking a six-year contract at $17 million per year. For the Nationals, paying Kimbrel $17 million would cost the team almost $6.2 million in “luxury tax,” meaning that his true price would be more than $23 million for 2019 alone.