The Yankees will open their season in five days against the Baltimore Orioles in the Bronx. In a normal offseason, there would be no more prize free agents still available, but this is not one of those offseasons. Instead, Craig Kimbrel remains without a home, less than a week before camp breaks for the regular season, and until extremely recently, there has been almost zero indication that even a single team is interested in signing him. That should change – and it should be the Yankees that finally do.
Let me be clear about something up front: I am not under any illusion that this is plausible or even realistic. I am aware that signing Kimbrel would require paying him an annual salary of millions of dollars. I am aware of the luxury tax, and where the Yankees’ payroll currently sits. I am aware that those factors have kept Kimbrel off the Yanks’ radar for almost six months. But I am also aware that there is a convincing case to be made that the Yankees should sign Craig Kimbrel. Let’s walk through it.
He is Extremely, Extremely Good
Baseball writers were once famous for arguing that [Insert One-Hit Wonder Reliever Here] was the “Next Mariano” during Rivera’s long career, to the point that it became somewhat of a running joke among fans. That was for good reason – there was and will always be only one Mariano, and most of the anointed relievers returned to ignominy shortly thereafter. Not Craig Kimbrel, though.
Kimbrel’s stats through 532.2 career innings are simply breathtaking. He’s fanned 14.6 batters per 19 innings pitched, which amounts to 41.6% of the batters he’s ever faced when considered another way. His 1.91 ERA adjusts to a ridiculous 47 ERA- and is supported by a 1.96 FIP. He’s stranded over 84% of inherited runners on base. He’s been worth over 20 bWAR and recorded 333 saves in 367 chances. That’s 90%. He’s done all this over 9 years, a true rarity among elite relief pitchers not named Mo.
That remained true last year, despite his “advanced” age of 31, too. In 62.1 innings with Boston, Kimbrel posted a 2.74 ERA and struck out nearly 40 percent of the batters he faced. His critics will tell you that he walked too many batters (12%) and that he always has; they are right but miss the forest for the trees here. It’s hardly a stretch to say that he’s the 2nd best reliever in modern history, if not all-time, behind Mariano. He’d make any bullpen better – even the already-dominant one in New York.
This brings us to the next point: even though the Yankees should have one of the best bullpens in league history in 2019, the reality is that we just don’t know what will happen. Just look at last year, when the same was true. The Yankees still needed to add Zack Britton at the deadline due to a slate of unexpected midsummer injuries. Already, the Yanks are without Dellin Betances because of injury, and while that’s expected to be a brief IL stint, you can never be too sure.
Adding Kimbrel would help bolster the bullpen even more, making it nearly impossible for the Yanks to be without at least one dominant back-end arm in the bullpen. In the best case scenario where Betances gets healthy immediately and everyone else remains so, then the Yankees simply have an embarrassment of riches in the ‘pen. That would be okay with me too.
Free Agent Outlook
This spring has seen an unprecedented number of elite players sign extensions, with players electing to take guaranteed money now rather than risk another weak free agent class. Players already under contract but with opt-outs, like Aroldis Chapman, are likely not to utilize them – even if they remain effective.
In other words, that means that fewer and fewer elite players will see the market in the coming years. This same argument applied – but more aptly, it must be said – to Manny Machado and Bryce Harper as well, but it’s somehow even more apparent now than it was a few weeks ago. The Yankees are in a window of contention, and they should not waste it by not signing the very best available players. Kimbrel is one of those.
Cost Certainty Going Forward
The Yankees have smartly locked up both Aaron Hicks and Luis Severino and are likely to pursue similar extensions for players like Gleyber Torres, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez as they approach their money-making arbitration years. Given the current state of extensions – where players are frequently signing contracts for less than they’d expect in arbitration, let alone the open market – it is likely that any extension for those players will be team-friendly.
Beyond that, the Yanks only have $51.26 million locked up for 2022 per Cot’s Contracts. That’s not a lot of long-term money, with the only big contract being Stanton’s. The Yanks just don’t have much long-term money tied up, and with fewer big-ticket free agents on the horizon and teams holding all of the negotiation leverage in extension talks, it’s likely to stay that way. Signing Kimbrel wouldn’t much compromise that future flexibility and would have the added benefit of improving the team now.
It Would Deal a Blow to Boston
Kimbrel, of course, has spent the last three seasons with the Boston Red Sox. Boston doesn’t seem all that motivated to sign him right now, but their bullpen will likely be the one weakness on their team. That means that they may swoop in at the eleventh hour and make a compelling offer or that they’re hoping for his price to drop to where they’re comfortable – an outcome which does grow more likely each day he goes unsigned.
Stealing away Kimbrel would prevent that from happening, taking away the one constant from the Sox bullpen from last year and make their bullpen a true weak spot heading into 2019. In a division race that figures to be extremely close, it always makes sense to weaken your rival if you can.
The Yanks Haven’t Won the ALE Since 2012
The Yankees haven’t won the AL East since the 2012 season seven years ago. Their three postseason appearances since (2015, 2017 and 2018) all began with the Wild Card Game being played in the Bronx. They’re 2-1 in those games, and the 2017 game, in particular, is a classic, but I think everyone would prefer a guaranteed berth in the ALDS rather than playing another do-or-die matchup to begin the playoffs. That’s especially true amid a true championship window: You don’t want to leave anything to chance.
Even as two-thirds of teams around the league try to lose and most divisions are completely uncompetitive, the Yanks have the misfortune of sharing theirs with Boston, who, in case you forgot, won 108 games and the World Series last year. The AL East is Boston’s right now, and the Yankees should stop at nothing to take it back – even if that means stealing Boston’s closer.
Again, if I was being generous, I’d give this a 0.01% chance of being possible. But that’s not really the point here. Craig Kimbrel is one of the very best relievers in the history of baseball and he is unsigned less than a week from Opening Day. Fans and analysts of every team in the league could do a similar exercise for why their preferred team should sign him, and eventually, someone will (right now it looks like the Braves or Brewers). Why shouldn’t it be the Yankees?