With spring training officially underway, the Twins find themselves with a bit of an ambiguous bullpen. After shoring up various offensive positions in the wake of retirements/trades, Minnesota has been relatively quiet on the pitching front — unless you count Martin Perez and Blake Parker as big-name signings.
With the starting rotation more-or-less decided, an inquisitive eye turns to the bullpen, where Target Field has welcomed a revolving door of 9th-inning arms for the last few seasons. The trusty tandem of Joe Nathan and Glen Perkins covered an impressive twelve years of baseball before giving way to guys like Kevin Jepsen, Brandon Kintzler, and Fernando Rodney.
Which brings us to our man of the hour, Craig Kimbrel. Does the simian-armed All-Star fit in with the roster? Let’s take a look.
Kimbrel: A History
When Kimbrel debuted with the Braves in 2010, he entered a landscape where the legendary Mariano Rivera still laid claim to the title of “best closer in baseball.” But it didn’t take long for Kimbrel to usurp that honor. In his first five seasons, Kimbrel racked up 186 saves and 476 strikeouts, won Rookie of the Year, made four All-Star Games, routinely finished in the top five for Cy Young voting, and managed as low as an 1.01 ERA in his second complete season.
Shortly after extending Kimbrel, the declining Braves shipped him to San Diego, who dumped him off to Boston a year later. With the newly-minted champion Red Sox, he made another three All-Star Games and became the active saves leader, with 333 to his credit.
Which brings us to now: that original extension has run out and a 30-year-old Craig Kimbrel is hitting the open market for the first time in his career.
Any team who signs Kimbrel will instantly add credibility to their bullpen. In Minnesota’s case, Kimbrel would enable guys like Trevor May and Blake Parker to rove around as late-inning firemen, preventing either of them from getting locked up in a pre-assigned inning. Granted, this assumes that Kimbrel himself would be limited to 9th-inning duties, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. It’s where Kimbrel’s most comfortable and surely expects to play, and last year’s team tied the major-league record for most walk-off losses, so maybe a Proven Closer™ wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
Craig is also a noted strikeout fiend. Last year’s 13.9 K/9 mark would have led the roster, and he’s surpassed 16 and even 17 in the past. With Ryan Pressly no longer on the team, Kimbrel would represent a valuable arm for those do-or-die, bases-loaded situations.
With almost a full decade of ball under his belt, he’d also serve as a veteran presence for the younger guys in the pen, and he brings with him eight series’ worth of postseason experience.
And the Twins have the funds this year for a splashy move, so why not?
For every reason to lock down Kimbrel, there is a compelling argument against it.
Yes, Kimbrel is a Proven Closer™. But he’s proven himself over the course of 500+ innings, and that power arm is now on the wrong side of 30. Last season, Kimbrel saw career-lows in FIP (3.13) and HR/9 (1.01). His average fastball velocity dipped over a full mile per hour. His walk rate soared, from 1.83 BB/9 in 2017 to 4.48 BB/9 last season. And he struggled through the playoffs, walking eight hitters and allowing seven runs in nine games.
Prior to the launch angle revolution, Kimbrel consistently induced grounders in about half of his battles. Last season, over two-thirds of his balls put in play were in the air. And while his strikeout rate would have led the Twins, it was his lowest mark since joining the Red Sox in 2016.
And what about that aforementioned contract? Even in a tough market, Kimbrel has been driving a hard bargain, standing by an initial ask of 6 yrs/$100m, a deal that would break multiple records for a free-agent relief contract. (Rumors of Kimbrel threatening to sit out the 2019 season should these demands not be met have since been debunked by his agent.)
At the end of the day, Craig Kimbrel has demonstrated the beginning signs of decline from an otherworldly reliever to — a really elite reliever. There’s no denying that whatever peripheral decrease might be happening, Kimbrel remains a stellar addition to 30 out of 30 major-league bullpens.
But will his asking price come down to something more palatable? Or will another team pony up and comply with his demands? Would you even want the Twins to tie themselves down to a long-term closer? Is Kimbrel even interested in Minnesota after just winning the World Series on the [insert fanfare] East Coast?
What’s your verdict?
Should the Twins sign Craig Kimbrel?
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