By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The 2019 MLB season is officially underway. Teams across the country are beginning their 162-game treks, with the goal of winning a World Series title.
Craig Kimbrel is not a part of any of it.
That is just so very strange.
Indeed, as the season officially opens for all teams this week, Kimbrel remains unemployed. There’s hardly even been a rumor of a team being interested in acquiring his services over the course of the past week or two. The Brewers appeared moderately interested for a moment, as were the Braves. But the Brewers decided to sign Alex Wilson, and nothing’s materialized on the Braves front.
And so, with real games beginning, Kimbrel has been reduced to a Major League Baseball spectator.
That is, frankly, bizarre, when you consider:
–Kimbrel was an All-Star last year. It was his third straight All-Star selection and his seventh in the past eight years.
–Kimbrel recorded 42 saves last year, second-most in the American League and third-most in MLB.
–Kimbrel posted a sub-1 WHIP (0.995) last year for the second straight season, the fifth time of his career. It was the ninth-best WHIP of all AL pitchers with a minimum of 60 innings pitched.
–Kimbrel went 42-for-47 in save opportunities last year. He went 110-for-121 in his three-year Red Sox career. In his career, he’s recorded 333 saves with 34 blown saves.
–He’s just two years removed from earning Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year honors. That was the second time he’d won Reliever of the Year Honors.
–He’s averaged 42 saves per year since 2011.
–He’s 30 years old and will turn 31 in May.
There’s money to be spent in the big leagues. And teams need closers. And yet that guy has been unable to find work.
It’s not altogether strange that the Red Sox didn’t sign Kimbrel. A team coming off a World Series run isn’t generally desperate enough to throw top dollar at a closer. The Red Sox got three good seasons out of Kimbrel after giving up Manuel Margot and a few prospects. That’s a pretty fair price to have paid for a guy who recorded 108 saves over three years and helped win a World Series.
(Though, one has to wonder if Kimbrel regrets turning down the qualifying offer, which would have paid him $17.9 million for the 2019 season.)
But the fact that no teams were even interested enough to even wade into the waters of talking brass tacks with Kimbrel and agent David Meter? It’s truly puzzling.
Yes, Kimbrel had a very bad postseason performance in 2019. In nine appearances, he posted a 1.594 WHIP and a 5.91 ERA, walking eight batters and hitting two more over 10.2 innings pitched. Thanks to a ridiculous play by Eduardo Nunez at third base in the Bronx and a diving catch by Andrew Benintendi in Houston, Kimbrel managed to to avoid blowing any saves while also locking down six saves. But there was no mistaking the fact that the postseason was not good for Kimbrel.
Still, that’s a 10-inning sample from a pitcher who’s toed the rubber in the big leagues more than 550 times. It may have given a team or two some pause, but it certainly wasn’t enough to make him a poison pitcher to any and every MLB club.
It’s possible that the reported initial asking price of six years, $100 million turned teams off, naturally. But Kimbrel was hardly the first baseball player with exorbitant contract demands at the outset of free agency. He also wouldn’t have been the first player to eventually sign for much less than that initial asking price.
It’s also possible that Kimbrel’s market may open after June 1, when a team that signs him would not have to give their first-round draft pick to the Red Sox. In post-Astros world, such decisions are weighed more heavily in front offices around the league. Perhaps Kimbrel will eventually be seen as a midseason addition for a contending team who will only cost that team cash to acquire. And given his current employment status, perhaps that cash amount will be much lower than it would have been in February and March.
But really, the whole matter at this moment in time is just puzzling. A still-in-his prime, top-of-the-line closer with no injury history, coming off an All-Star season, remains without a job as the real season begins. It’s a situation that just might be unprecedented.