Let me first say that it’s not my money, and if you’re asking me just simply as a fan of the Atlanta Braves whether or not I want Craig Kimbrel to play on my team, then of course I do. That’s not what this is about. If I could, I would have the best player at each position on the roster. Of course.
The Braves will go into the season with their deepest pen since at least the end of their last division run, if not even earlier. And it’s not very top-heavy; it does indeed lack an elite arm. But with an 8-man pen, you already have spots dedicated to A.J. Minter, Arodys Vizcaino, Darren O’Day, and Jonny Venters. Those are locks. So you have four remaining spots for Jesse Biddle, Dan Winkler, Shane Carle, Chad Sobotka, and whoever you would want to carry in the pen who doesn’t crack the rotation. Then you have Grant Dayton, who may be the second-most talented lefty in the pen if he is healthy. Then you have Sam Freeman, who has some value. That’s 6 players for 4 spots, then Sam Freeman. So for those of you that think we aren’t signing Craig Kimbrel because we’re keeping a spot fresh for Luke Jackson, well, you’re mistaken.
So while Kimbrel would absolutely help the back end of the pen and give you much more certainty late in the game, he would prevent you from giving a spot to someone like Dan Winkler or Jesse Biddle or Chad Sobotka, someone with some potential that has 4-5 years of control remaining. And like it or not, the rebuild has been predicated on building an elite pitching staff with many years of control for a lot less than what other teams have built elite pitching staffs for — like $30M instead of $90-100M annually — so that’s something that has be taken into consideration.
So now we get to the financial reason. As it sits, the Braves have the 20th-ranked payroll according to Spotrac. And that is something we never thought would happen when the Braves made the following statements at the beginning of the offseason:
And Dan from last thread’s comments is indeed correct: AA is 0-3. And that’s just simply unacceptable. To keep this core as cheap as possible for as long as possible, they seem to be the only contending team that has not traded a single important prospect. That’s clearly also another financial move, just one that’s not meant to impact 2019. But when it comes to Kimbrel, they’re probably worried about two things: his AAV not lining up with what free agent relievers signed for this offseason, and their financial commitments in 2021.
This offseason, there seemed to have been a market correction for elite relievers. According to Spotrac, this is your current landscape of highest-paid relievers:
You can see the full list here. Britton, Miller, Robertson, and Ottavino all signed this offseason. Jansen, Melancon, Davis, and Chapman signed their deals in previous offseasons. Notice the difference? Your best relievers, who are a stones throw in value from the top paid guys, signed for about 60-80% of what the previous guys did. And it doesn’t take a genius to see why; those top 4 earners did not crack the top 9 in reliever fWAR this year (Chapman was 10th). And Kimbrel was 22nd this past year, just one spot and 0.1 fWAR ahead of A.J. Minter. And it’s also important to note that the Braves already have O’Day on this lit.
So the Braves might be looking at his situation, just like the 29 other teams in baseball, and wondering why they should pay Kimbrel the $16-18M per year he’s looking for when no one else was willing to pay any reliever like that this offseason. And it’s not like Kimbrel is coming off a particularly stellar year.
The Braves are also probably looking to specifically 2021 and what their commitments are. It’s one to thing to sign a guy to a ten-year deal and resolve to figure it out when you get to the end. But 2021 is within range to be making decisions now that impact that year. By that time, much of their core will be into their arb years, with some guys like Folty being in their last year of arb. Gausman will be a free agent. The Braves will undoubtedly be looking to front load some of the guys that will be in arb 1 or 2 by that time like I speculated in a recent post, so they may be looking to actively avoid a situation where they’re paying their closer $18M per while they’re trying to lock up their core long term.
So there is indeed a lot more to this than just Liberty Media is being cheap — though that is objectively true — and it’s partly Kimbrel’s fault that he wants to be paid 30-40% more than what relievers are getting this offseason (and probably in the future). AA is looking to keep the existing core intact when they start costing money, and he probably sees paying a closer $18M per year as an antagonist to that. And you’ve got what is a smidge of a bullpen logjam going on. So while you should have your pitchforks out, maybe just don’t sharpen them just yet.