Red Sox: How the 2018 free agent reliever market effects Craig Kimbrel

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 30: Craig Kimbrel #46 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after beating the Houston Astros and winning the AL East Division at Fenway Park on September 30, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 30: Craig Kimbrel #46 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after beating the Houston Astros and winning the AL East Division at Fenway Park on September 30, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images) /

This offseason has seen a number of relievers get paid in free agency. What does this mean for the future of Boston Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel?

Craig Kimbrel must be watching the activity of relief pitchers on the free agent market with a smile on his face. The closer for the Boston Red Sox sees teams investing unprecedented amounts of money in their bullpens and he knows his time is coming.

The Red Sox exercised Kimbrel’s $13 million option for 2018, locking him in for one more season before he reaches free agency. That’s a bargain price for the best reliever in the American League when you consider what free agent pitchers are being paid.

The MLB Trade Rumors free agent tracker lists several relievers who earned big paydays this winter.  Tommy Hunter (2-years, $18 million), Jake McGee (3-years, $27 million), Mike Minor (3-years, $28 million), Brandon Morrow (2-years, $21 million) and Bryan Shaw (3-years, $27 million) all earned multi-year deals with an average annual value of at least $9 million. Each is coming off a strong season out of the bullpen yet they all have limited experience as a closer and may not even factor into the 9th inning role with their new team.

Only 38 starting pitchers are currently expected to earn at least $9 million in 2018, according to Spotrac. If the going rate for a setup man is akin to the price of a No. 2 or 3 starter then what does that mean for an elite closer like Kimbrel?

The closest comparison in this market would be Wade Davis, who signed a three-year, $52 million deal with the Colorado Rockies. The $17.33 million average annual value is a record for a relief pitcher.

The career numbers for Davis are a bit skewed by his unsuccessful run as a starting pitcher earlier in his career. As a reliever, Davis has posted numbers strikingly similar to Kimbrel.

InningsERAWHIPK/9K/BBBatting Avg
Wade Davis321.21.650.9711.43.390.171
Craig Kimbrel470.11.800.9114.84.440.155

If there is a shortlist of relievers who have performed better than Davis over the last few seasons, Kimbrel is certainly in that group. He’ll also be nearly two years younger than Davis is now when he hits the free agent market at the age of 30 next winter. Teams rarely invest long-term commitments with relievers due to how volatile the role can be, yet Kimbrel’s age and track record suggests he’ll break Davis’ record of average annual value for a reliever with at least an additional year or two tacked on.

It would come as no surprise if Kimbrel’s next deal pays at least $18 million per season. Only 17 starting pitchers are set to earn that much in 2018. If he’s given a five-year deal, Kimbrel could be looking at a $90 million contract next year. If he’s as dominant in 2018 as he was last season then we can’t rule out Kimbrel making a run at a $100 million deal.

As important as it is for teams to lock down the ninth inning of a tight game with a trustworthy pitcher, it’s impossible for any reliever to return as much value as a top-tier starting pitcher given the difference in workload. As brilliant as Kimbrel was this season, his 3.4 WAR pales in comparison to an ace like Chris Sale (6.0 WAR).

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Despite a clear gap in value compared to elite starting pitchers, Kimbrel might get paid like an ace. If that’s the case then his next contract is unlikely to come from the Red Sox.

Boston has the financial resources to afford an expensive closer, but their track record suggests they won’t. Jonathan Papelbon was once among the top closers in baseball and recorded the final out of the 2007 World Series. When he hit free agency following his age 30 season the Red Sox had no qualms about watching him sign a lucrative deal elsewhere. Koji Uehara produced a historic season as the closer in 2013 but the Red Sox were never willing to commit a long-term deal with him.

If Kimbrel prices his way out of Boston then who takes over the closer role for the Red Sox in 2019? Tyler Thornburg has some experience in the role but needs to prove he has returned to form after missing the entire 2017 season. Carson Smith flashed his potential after returning from Tommy John surgery in September but needs to make it through a full season at that level before he can be trusted to inherit the closer seat.

The success and health of those two setup men in 2018 will go a long way toward determining if the Red Sox can afford to move on from Kimbrel. Perhaps a young pitcher like Austin Maddox could have a breakout season that puts his name in the mix, while Joe Kelly‘s blazing fastball gives him the profile of a potential closer if he can ever put it all together for a full season.

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The Red Sox have some options to replace Kimbrel in the long run but they all come with question marks. Signing a 30-year old relief pitcher to a long-term deal is risky but so is letting a lights-out closer like Kimbrel go without a viable backup plan in place.