Could the Braves make a trade to bring back Craig Kimbrel?

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While it’s a little early in the season to be already talking about trades, it’s clear that Atlanta’s bullpen doesn’t have the weapons it did in a shortened 2020. I didn’t think turning down Darren O’Day’s option for $3.5 million was the right move at the time, and he’s proven to be very effective for the Yankees so far. I could rationalize Mark Melancon leaving with his less than ideal analytical stats. Still, he has been lights out for the Padres so far — only allowing one earned run over ten innings, striking out ten batters, and leading the majors in saves with seven. Shane Greene remains unsigned, but I’m not sure he is the answer either. Regardless, the Braves are still in the thick of things in the division after a pretty horrible start.



Right now, the Braves rank 16th in bullpen ERA, compared to 11th in 2020. Shane Greene, Mark Melancon, and Darren O’Day were among a group that was absolutely lights out in the regular season a year ago. The Braves will have to make some additions at the trade deadline, and while my top targets are guys like Emmanuel Clase and James Karinchak, teams that were expected to struggle like the Indians are off to a decent start in 2021. In a poor AL Central that the Royals currently lead, anything can happen between now and the summer push. So what about another team like Cleveland that shed a lot of salary this offseason — the Chicago Cubs?

Everyone misses the days of Craig Kimbrel walking out to Welcome to the Jungle with flames lighting up the outfield walls because we knew the game was all but over at that point. Kimbrel led the league in saves from 2011-2014, notching a total of 185, which is downright incredible. Kimbrel won NL Rookie of the Year in 2011, edging out his teammate Freddie Freeman. There were points when Kimbrel was even getting serious Cy Young consideration. When the Braves signed Dallas Keuchel a few weeks into the 2019 seasons, fans were clamoring for the Braves to make another splash move and bring back Kimbrel, who was also unsigned at the time. Kimbrel signed with the Cubs, and it was a great decision not to ink him to the three-year, $43 million contract he got from Chicago.


Craig Kimbrel in 2019: 20.2 IP, 21 H, 15 ER, 9 HR, 12 BB, 6.53 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 8.00 FIP

Craig Kimbrel in 2020: 15.1 IP, 10 H, 9 ER, 2 HR, 12 BB, 5.23 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 3.97 FIP


So why would the Braves want to take on the final year of his fairly massive contract as a rental? Well, for starters, Kimbrel looks like 2013 Craig Kimbrel once again early into 2021:


Craig Kimbrel in 2021: 9.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 5 BB, 14 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 1.65 FIP


While this is a small sample size, it’s clear that he’s much more of the Craig Kimbrel of old than he has been in the past two seasons. Once again, it’s a little premature to discuss this, but I think the Braves should be interested in his services sooner rather than later. Kimbrel also has a vested $16 million club option for 2022 with a $1 million buyout. Via Spotrac, these are the conditions for the option to vest automatically:

  • Vest with 110 games finished across 2020/2021
    & 55 games finished in 2021
    & passes a physical
  • 2022 Buyout increases
    $1M each for 53 games finished in 2020, & 2021

That’s a pretty big penny for a guy who just now found his groove again, and it would be a bit of a gamble for the Braves, but I don’t think it will vest. Unless something was changed, with the 2020 season being shortened, the odds of him reaching 110 games does not seem likely, considering he only finished 11 last season. So, if he plays well, the Braves would still have to pay out a big chunk of change, but they would have the choice to do so.

With Atlanta desperately needing a true closer and Kimbrel saving four of Chicago’s nine wins this season, I could see the Braves making a push for him. The Cubs are still in the thick of the NL Central, but they have shown that they want to shed salary going forward and basically start over after winning a championship in 2016. I don’t think you will hear much noise about Kimbrel coming back to the Braves for now, but if the Cubs begin to fade going into July, don’t be shocked if Alex Anthopoulos is on the phone with Jed Hoyer.


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