The Curious Case of Craig Kimbrel

The White Sox put on their big boy pants on Friday July 30, 2021. It was another step in the maturity of the REBUILD to go out and make a move that really showed that they considered themselves serious contenders.

Even, I, a perpetual Rick Hahn critic, couldn’t contain my excitement that the long-tenured GM had made a “finishing move” for the 2021 White Sox chances to win a World Series.

The move was one thing, the reality of it was much uglier. Kimbrel came to the White Sox and pretty much stunk. 23 IP 36 K 10 BB (unintentional) 5 HR given up and a 5.09 ERA, backed up by a 4.56 FIP. Not good. Really not good. His playoffs weren’t any better 2 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 0 K. I did manage to give a major fist pump when he retired the only batter he faced in Game 3 at home (the White Sox only win and a damn near spiritual event for all of us in attendance). In short, the trade didn’t work out.

At least his music strolling in from the bullpen was cool af.

What’s Eating (by) Axl Rose

I’ll be honest, when the trade was consummated, I just assumed Kimbrel would pitch well for the White Sox and his $16 million 2022 option would be picked up and the team would live with a very dependable, albeit, expensive back end of the bullpen. After his recent performance though, I just assumed the White Sox would give him $1 million to just go away and find employment elsewhere, but then I saw this tweet by Bob Nightengale.

Well, I’m in no position to ignore ole Bob’s report. If anyone has a direct line to the owner, it damn sho’ is him. It got me thinking though. What would a trade of a $16M closer who sucked in the 2nd half of the prior season look like? Bob is surely correct, teams are looking for closers, really any relievers. The market for relievers the last couple tree years has gotten hotter, but this hot? I dunno. Let’s check it out.

Trading Craig Kimbrel?

2021 Trade Deadline Champs t-shirt incoming

First thing is first, I want to dispel something that Bob was alluding to in his tweet and something I’ve heard way, way too much by the main stream sports media. The thought that Craig Kimbrel just couldn’t adjust to NOT being the closer and that’s why he struggled with the White Sox. I’m not saying that’s not a factor at all, but most of the main stream pundits were weighting this very heavily and at best in my opinion, it should be a footnote in his poor performance with the White Sox. See below for a table of his game logs from 2020 with the Chicago Cubs.

Table from Baseball-Reference.com

September 2020 is when he started to get his groove back, just like Stella, and basically none of those were save situations or 9th inning situations. He collected 1 save in 8 appearances. He pitched absolutely terrific. So don’t believe that hype that his poor performance was because he wasn’t the closer, that’s goofy. I’m sure there is some psychological effect, but he smashed like JMac in a non-closer role in 2020.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s widen out the lense on Kimbrel’s 2021 performance. We already zoomed in on how ungood he was with the White Sox, but a potential suitor might be looking more closely at his entire body of work for the season.

2021 Qualified Relievers Table from Fangraphs.com

When looking at the entirety of 2021, Kimbrel lines up nicely with the top relievers in the game, (oh hi Liam, I see you there at the top). So maybe another team doesn’t believe that Pale Hoes version of Mr. Kimbrel is the real version. That would be ideal for a White Sox team looking to barter. But let’s zoom out even further. Let’s look at from the time he signed with the Cubs in 2019, which was basically in the middle of the season after the market was cold af on him wanting the deal he wanted. The Cubs eventually caved and brought him in and the results were, uneven? LOL.

2019-2021 Relievers, min 90 IP table from Fangraphs.com

There’s ole Craig checking in at #74. This chart is using fWAR which is imperfect for relievers, especially a reliever who didn’t get to log a full season in 2019 because nobody wanted to sign him for the amount he eventually signed for (that may end up being important, I dunno), but he looks like a regular ass reliever. Well, a regular ass reliever with gigantic variance. He was terrible and terrific in starts and stops with the Cubs. His White Sox stay was more regular bad. I think we have a 10,000 foot picture of Craig’s resume. Now let’s look at a few other factors.

Other Factors

Below is a cut out from MLBTradeRumors.com and it is a list of the Right Handed Relievers available this off-season.

That’s A TON of Right Handed relievers available to acquire in 2022 for the club that might want to gobble them up. I know the trope will be that Kimbrel is the CLOSER and that will add extra demand, well, this list has current closers, former closers, future closers, future former closers, and the like. It’s unclear to me what Kimbrel’s demand will be by other teams, because YMMV, but the supply of Right Handed relievers looks, robust.

One last thing is money.

IF….the White Sox pick up Craig Kimbrel’s option, he’ll be owed $16 million for the 2022 season. Below is a quick table of the highest paid relievers going into the 2022 season to see where Kimbrel might stack up.

This table of the top 10 paid relievers in MLB in 2022 is from Spotrac.com

Yep, that’s Craig up there, right behind the very hateable Aroldis Chapman. Not exactly a “bargain” in the conventional sense when thinking about the trade market.

Conclusion

I assume the reader is going to think that I believe Craig Kimbrel to be untradeable. That’s not my conclusion, just that there are lots of potential obstacles in the way of trading him. I also don’t think you’ll see a conventional trade like we are used to. IF something does happen it might require some outside the box thinking.

Maybe Rick Hahn can channel his inner Billy Hoyle and shoot a hook shot into the Sudan on picking up Kimbrel’s option and then trading him for something useful……it would go a long way towards re-shaping the 2022 White Sox. If he does, expect it to be some sort of esoteric deal, something unorthodox that doesn’t look like much. Above market value relievers can be tough to trade. He might even have to take back something as thorny as the Kimbrel contract in return, but that the White Sox think better fits the roster.

-BeefLoaf

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