Now that Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has more or less officially announced his intention to sell at the trade deadline, contenders looking to acquire some upgrades off the Wrigleyville roster might start with a player whose value seemed negligible heading into last season’s deadine: closer Craig Kimbrel. While the Cubs’ fortunes have dimmed in 2021, Kimbrel is enjoying a fantastic comeback season after a disappointing 2020.
Whether a front office likes traditional stats or modern analytics, Kimbrel has something for everyone. Start with big picture run prevention, and there’s nobody better in the game right now: his 0.57 ERA, 1.12 FIP, and 1.94 xFIP all rank 1st overall among qualified relievers. He’s second behind Matt Barnes by measure of SIERA. Kimbrel’s 46.2% strikeout rate is the top such mark among qualified relievers in the game. He also seems to have figured out the control problems that plagued him the past two seasons, lowering his walk rate to a very reasonable 8.6 percent. If you want to dig even deeper, Kimbrel is among the best in the game by whiff rate, chase rate, and barrel percentage.
The righty is also controllable beyond this season with a $16MM vesting option for 2022 that defaults to a club option (with a $1MM buyout) if it doesn’t vest. Kimbrel isn’t exactly cheap, as he is playing on a $16MM salary for 2021 and will still be owed roughly $5.43MM come July 30, but Hoyer can certainly make the case to other teams that Kimbrel is worth the investment.
There will be a certain class of buyer who prefers to shop in the Ryan Tepera/Andrew Chafin lot rather than pay sticker price for Kimbrel. To their point, relievers are historically fungible and fickle, and there are always relievers to be had at the trade deadline. But, bullpen arms don’t grow on trees, and there’s not a contender in the game that couldn’t find a use for Kimbrel.
In fact, it’s probably a simpler task to identify those contenders who won’t have interest in Kimbrel. The Rays, for example, already count their bullpen as a strength, and Kimbrel is a little flashy and/or expensive for their taste. The Nationals — as much as they could use him — would probably have to surrender too great a share of their limited prospect capital to get him.
The Brewers likely consider themselves set with Josh Hader, Devin Williams and Brent Suter – and it’s a little hard to fathom Chicago handing Kimbrel to the team that appears to have bested them for the division. The Reds could use him, but after shedding bullpen money last winter, it’s a little counterintuitive to think they’d be ready for an addition like Kimbrel just a few months later. Frankly, the Cubs probably don’t have a trade moratorium with their NL Central comrades (except maybe the Cardinals), but they might require a premium. The Brewers and Reds don’t have the need or inclination, respectively, to pay that tax.
The Pirates and Diamondbacks of the world won’t be calling anytime soon, and the Yankees, for all their recent trouble closing out games of late, look more likely to trade away a closer than acquire one.
The White Sox and Cubs aren’t exactly regular trade partners, but Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune suggests the crosstown rivals might be a fit for a Kimbrel deal. Putting Kimbrel in the Sox bullpen with the likes of Liam Hendriks, Michael Kopech, Garrett Crochet, and Aaron Bummer would certainly blow some hats off, and it would give manager Tony La Russa a strong insurance plan against almost any potential injury for a group with some injury risk. But the Southsiders gave Hendriks $54MM to close games, and it’s a little hard to fathom the active saves leader embracing second chair.
Sullivan also puts the Astros and A’s at the top of the list of suitors. Both make some sense, though the Astros might be in a similar place as the ChiSox, given Ryan Pressly’s All-Star campaign. Oakland’s Lou Trivino has performed well in taking the bulk of closer duties since Trevor Rosenthal has been lost for the year, but Trivino could probably step back into a setup role just as easily.
Besides, the Cubs and A’s have done business before as trade partners. Most notably, Hoyer was the Cubs’ GM in July 2014 when they packaged Jeff Samardzija with Jason Hammel to net top prospect Addison Russell along with Billy McKinney and Dan Straily. Speculatively speaking, if the Cubs were serious about moving Javier Baez, the A’s could certainly use a shortstop upgrade, and the two clubs could try again to pair multiple assets together in this kind of deal, though the financial cost for even one of Kimbrel or Baez might not be palatable for the small-market Athletics.
The Phillies have the most obvious need with a 4.78 bullpen ERA and league-leading 22 blown saves. It’s not clear, however, how serious the Phillies are as contenders, currently a game under .500 and 4.5 games behind the Mets for the division and slim odds at a wild card spot. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski certainly knows Kimbrel well from his time running the Red Sox, and he was also the executive at the wheel when Boston let Kimbrel walk in free agency.
The Dodgers have blown 17 saves, and though Kenley Jansen has looked better than expected, they’ve suffered some significant losses from their pitching staff. Their starting pitching has taken a few hits over the course of the season, most recently with Clayton Kershaw landing on the injured list. One way to counteract that depleted rotation depth would be to bolster the bullpen, and there’s no better arm available than Kimbrel.
Padres’ GM A.J. Preller traded for Kimbrel once before, and if he thinks the Dodgers might be inquiring, he very well could be interesting in trading for him again. Preller also traded him away once before, but that was hardly an indictment of Kimbrel. The present-day Padres have suffered enough injury woes to know that there is no such thing as enough pitching depth. They are, however, leading the league with a 2.86 bullpen ERA, and Mark Melancon is a trusted veteran hand with 27 saves in 31 opportunities. It’s not their greatest need, but the Padres are all in on 2021, and as of right now, they’re staring down a one-game playoff with the Giants or Dodgers.
And why not, the Giants might throw their hats in the ring as well. Kimbrel would certainly fit with the Giants’ veteran-laden roster. He’d also offer some consistency and personality to a bullpen that currently splits closing opportunities between Jake McGee and Tyler Rogers. San Francisco’s bullpen has been good with a collective 3.42 ERA, but they have blown 16 save opportunities.
Moving back to the American League, the Blue Jays certainly qualify as a team to watch. Like the A’s, their Plan A, Kirby Yates, crumbled before the season even began, while depth options like Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis, and Julian Merryweather have all spent time on the injured list. Even nine games out of first in the AL East, the Jays are committed to contention, and they need all the help they can get on that end.
Hoyer and the Cubs may feel the urgency to jump the trade market for Kimbrel while his value remains at this peak level. In 33 appearances covering 31 2/3 innings, Kimbrel has been worth 2.0 rWAR/1.8 fWAR. He’s converted 20 saves in 22 tries with that absolutely shimmering 0.57 ERA. Those numbers aren’t likely to get much better, and given the relatively small sample inherent to a reliever’s workload, one bad outing could suddenly make Kimbrel appear mortal again.
Bottom line, Kimbrel is one of if not the best reliever in the game right now, and he’s available. For an aggressive contender, he’s likely available now.