Why Craig Kimbrel may return to the Red Sox

As the relief pitcher market begins to shrink, Craig Kimbrel finds himself in a good news, bad news situation. First, the good news. Kimbrel remains the top relief pitcher on the market. And right now it’s not close. The bad news? His options are dwindling, and that highlights the economics of baseball in 2019. 

Kimbrel should have a line of suitors. Closers do not grow on trees. In an age where a bullpen by committee is the norm, and the concept of “bullpen games” is becoming an option, most teams still want to have a consistent arm when it comes to closing a game out in the ninth inning. Kimbrel has delivered the consistent production that most teams would envy. 

With that said, the market for Kimbrel is not as robust as expected. Three teams, the Phillies, the Braves, and his current team the Red Sox are still considered the leading contenders. The issue in getting a deal done does not appear to be tied to a dollar figure. Kimbrel made $13,000,000 last season and most teams would be delighted to pay that amount, or more, for a closer of Kimbrel’s stature. However, Kimbrel’s desire for a long-term contract is pushing teams away. Fewer teams are looking to tie up that many years in a relief pitcher, even a closer with the track record of Kimbrel.

The Braves would seem to be a good fit. Kimbrel started his career there and the Braves reportedly love him. Still, with their recent signing of Josh Donaldson, they may not have the money available, even for a one-year deal. The Phillies are an interesting option, and they have expressed an interest in acquiring Kimbrel along with pitcher Dallas Kuechel and one of either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. The problem is that their interest in Kimbrel may be contingent on getting either Machado or Harper and that situation does not appear to be resolving itself anytime soon. 

That is making the Red Sox the leader in the clubhouse, albeit for a short-term deal, possibly as short as one year. Even on a one-year deal, however, the Red Sox would likely be looking at a contract in the neighborhood of $18,000,000. That would put them over the luxury tax threshold for a second straight year. But that may be a risk the Red Sox have to take. With Joe Kelly signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Adam Ottavino going to the Yankees, their bullpen without Kimbrel is suspect. 

For his part, Kimbrel may be open to a one-year deal with the Red Sox because as Mark Feinsand of MLB.com points out, the relief pitcher market for next season will not have as much competition, meaning that Kimbrel may find it easier to secure that long-term deal he wants.