The Craig Kimbrel sweepstakes extended for months into last year’s regular season, and the whole time, the Braves were viewed as one of the favorites to land the hard-throwing closer for a few reasons. Primarily, Atlanta’s bullpen was in shambles at the time, and obviously, there was also a lengthy history of nothing but unbelievable memories between the two parties.
Kimbrel came up with the Braves organization and made his major league debut as a 22-year-old in 2010. He went on to finish that season with an unheard of 0.44 ERA, and even though it was a sample size of just 21 appearances, he proved it was no fluke over the next four seasons, making four consecutive All-Star games and leading the National League in saves every year. However, following the 2014 season, the Braves had no choice but to tear things down and start from the bottom, which meant trading one of the best closers of all-time in a salary dump by including the horrendous contract of Melvin Upton. Kimbrel ended his five-year Braves career with a minuscule 1.43 ERA.
Fast forward five years and Kimbrel became an unrestricted free agent after playing a critical role in the Boston Red Sox 2018 World Series run. There were rumors about him looking for a contract in the $100 million range. However, no team budged — even the Braves, who were in desperate need of bullpen help — until the Cubs signed him to a three-year, $43 million contract in June of 2019, which was really a $48 million deal, considering it paid him a pro-rated salary of $10 million last year and owed him $16 million in 2020 and 2021. There is also a $1 million buyout for the 2022 season, which the Cubs will almost certainly pick up unless things turn around fast.
Last year, Kimbrel was a mess. He only appeared in 23 games for Chicago, recording a 0-4 record with a 6.53 ERA, including 3 blown saves in 16 tries. And this season, Kimbrel is off to an even worst start after his first outing yesterday in which he came in to close with a three-run lead. He proceeded to walk four batters and hit another while recording just one out before finally being removed from the game. Luckily for him, the Cubs were able to hang on and win by a run. Still, it’s apparent that Kimbrel is no longer the shutdown closer and perennial All-Star that he has been for his entire career, and it may go down as one of the Cubs’ worst ever free agent signings.
On the other hand, the Braves dodged a bullet by passing on their former star. The fans were sold on the nostalgia, but this is just a reminder that sometimes the GM knows best. Alex Anthopoulos has done a pretty good job thus far in his decision-making when it comes to free agents. Given the stinginess of Liberty Media over the years, signing Kimbrel would have been detrimental to the team’s future success. However, it’s worth noting that the money the Braves saved from passing on Kimbrel wasn’t exactly put to the best use. Cole Hamels signed a one-year deal worth $18 million with Atlanta this offseason, and there’s a significant chance that he never even pitches after recently being placed on the 45-day IL. Still, passing on Kimbrel leaves the Braves with a ton of flexibility moving forward.