Mets free agent target: Craig Kimbrel

To me, by far the biggest need for the Mets in the offseason is to address the bullpen. Unfortunately, relievers may provide less bang for the buck than any position out there. Among Jeurys Familia, AJ Ramos, Anthony Swarzak and Jerry Blevins, the Mets spent nearly $40 million dollars on bullpen arms last year. Let’s just say they didn’t come close to that amount of production.

Perhaps the problem is that none of those players would be considered near the top of the heap among relievers. And this year one of the game’s best closers – Craig Kimbrel – is a free agent. Should he be atop the Mets’ offseason shopping list? And if he’s worth pursuing, how much is he worth paying?

Neither of those questions are easy to answer. Since the second one is a conditional one, we need to start with the first query. And this is something on which reasonable people can disagree. And as I find out now, you don’t even need two people to disagree. My internal conversation has switched opinions so many times that I’m labeling myself a flip-flopper.

It’s important to know how many innings you need your pen to provide and then draw a roadmap as to how you will get there. In 2018, the Mets’ bullpen logged 546.1 IP. While the games were being played, especially earlier in the season, it felt like Mickey Callaway was babying the starters, looking for any reason to pull them. But the Mets’ relievers had the fourth-fewest total of IP among NL squads. In perhaps a bit of a surprise, the Rockies had the fewest relief innings in the league with 520.1 while the Padres had the most, with 635.

The NL average was 571.1 IP last year. Let’s forecast the Mets to once again be below average in reliever IP. And since we like round numbers – let’s say they’ll need 550 innings from the pen. How do you get there?

The Mets only had three relievers tally at least 50 IP last year – Robert Gsellman (80), Seth Lugo (78.1) and Paul Sewald (56.1). And since Sewald posted a 6.07 ERA, it’s hard to count him as a guy to repeat last year’s innings total. Lugo was terrific and Gsellman was mostly good, although with two really bad stretches.

My opinion is that the first priority is to establish how you want to use Lugo.

Early in the year, Lugo was used for multiple innings at a time on a regular basis. But the final two months of the season, 11 of his 19 appearances were for just one inning. Where is Lugo most valuable? Is he your shutdown guy in the eighth inning or is he the guy you turn to when one of the starters needs to be pulled before the end of the sixth, a guy to give you length? Either one is defensible.

My hope is that there are fewer times when the starter needs to be replaced that early. My plan would be to use Lugo and Swarzak as the primary setup man and keep Gsellman in a long man role, looking to utilize him two and three innings at a time for a majority of his appearances.

Ideally there’s another multi-inning guy to team with Gsellman. However, it’s an open question if that guy is currently in the organization. Maybe it’s Corey Oswalt, even if his numbers as a reliever last year were terrible.

If the Mets get 150 IP from Gsellman and the other multi-inning reliever and 130 IP from Lugo and Swarzak and 70 IP from their closer – that leaves 200 IP for the rest of the pen. And who those innings are going to come from is anyone’s guess. We’re going to see more churn, giving multiple guys opportunities to claim a job. Maybe it’s Drew Smith and Tyler Bashlor. Perhaps it’s Eric Hanhold and Bobby Wahl. Or – don’t laugh – Gerson Bautista and Jacob Rhame. Those guys, and others, will get a shot.

My operating assumption is to get the main 350 innings right and accept that there’s going to be a lot of terrible in those final 200. The Mets only got 138.2 IP from relievers with an ERA 3.00 and under last year and if we up that to 4.00, the total only goes up to 166.2 IP. Can Gsellman and Swarzak join the sub-4 .00 or even the sub-3.00 ERA club next year? Well, they need to for the Mets to be successful.

So, my view is the Mets need a closer and one other reliever. That other bullpen guy can either be a multi-inning guy or a set-up guy who pushes Lugo back to the other role.

And after much hemming and hawing, Kimbrel should be a target. Even if that means having to cheer for that beard and that ridiculous flying monkey imitation he does before throwing each pitch.

That’s a tough position to take after we saw a poor outing from him in last night’s ALDS-clinching game. But it wasn’t a Yu Darvish type playoff implosion and there’s just too much good in Kimbrel’s history to let one high-profile stinker change that.

His one-two punch of fastball and curve was very effective in 2018, even if not up to the crazy standards he set in 2017. But he averaged 97.1 with his fastball, right in line with what he did from 2014-2016. The K% is still an amazing 13.86 and he allowed just 31 hits in 62.1 IP. The big problem is with walks, as he allowed 31 free passes last year. That’s still a WHIP just below 1.000 and he is still one of the game’s top closers.

But he’ll also turn 31 next May. And the question becomes: How well will he age?

We can look to his similarity scores for a possible answer to that question. His top comp is Kenley Jansen, who has been an outstanding reliever but who is the same age as Kimbrel. So no insight there. Next up is Aroldis Chapman, who is the same age, too. Doh!

His third comp is Jonathan Papelbon, which might make you a little queasy. Personality issues aside, in his age 31-34 seasons, Papelbon put up a 2.38 ERA and a 1.029 WHIP over 261.1 IP. His age 35 season was poor and then he was out of the league.

Fourth comp is Tom Henke, who in his age 31-34 seasons had a combined 2.14 ERA and a 1.016 WHIP over 269.2 IP. He dropped off in his age 35 season but still posted a 2.91 ERA and a 1.103 WHIP. And Henke pitched well his final two seasons in the league, too.

Next up is Huston Street, who was solid in his age 31 season – 3.18 ERA and a 1.155 WHIP – but who was dogged by injury problems after that. And the last guy we’ll look at is Joakim Soria, who in his age 31-34 seasons put up a 3.33 ERA and 1.231 WHIP in 251 IP.

No one thinks Similarity Scores is the end-all determination of how a player will age. And we have the further issue that only three guys are truly similar, with a score of 900 or above, and two of those are the same age and can provide no insight whatsoever. But what little we do have is encouraging, with only Street not providing value on a multi-year deal.

So, what contract terms would be good? My preference would be a three-year deal with a willingness to go to four years at a lower AAV. Let’s say 3/$55 or 4/$64. Since the Red Sox picked up his option this year, Kimbrel’s last deal was 5/$54, which covered three arbitration years and two years of free agency.

There will be no argument from me if you say this is too much money for a reliever. The vast majority of times that would be my line, too. It just seems that for the 2019 Mets, this is the exception to the rule.

24 comments for “Mets free agent target: Craig Kimbrel

  1. Chris F
    October 10, 2018 at 11:42 am

    Awesome job Brian. I have mixed feelings about the 2019 Mets, but throwing reasonable caution to the wind, lets imagine they believe its a team with serious post season aspirations (I personally do not see 15 more Ws happening on the present course, but it will be fascinating to see what a new GM brings).

    Not only do you need to bring in Kimbrel at the cost you suggest, you need to bring in Familia (or similar) person too. The pen was an atrocity this year. I think you need a real set up person and closer along with innings eaters like Lugo. If this is a pitching first team, that extends to the pen. The best teams have this kind of relief pitching, and so will the Mets.

  2. October 10, 2018 at 1:32 pm

    One of the three closer caliber relievers seems to be a baseline offseason for the Mets.

    I still feel that Yasmani Grandal is a near must of a player and that the Mets could be a winner with those actions alone.

    • Chris F
      October 10, 2018 at 8:36 pm

      ^ +1

  3. Pete from NJ
    October 10, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    All the quality relievers are all past their 30 year mark making them all a dirty crap shoot.
    So I suppose the next GM better have the intuition to guess right or it’s a 2018 spend big with little return.
    So if Brian turned into a flip-flopped can you imagine The Wilpons and their ability to write check for next year’s product are thinking. In addition does Kimbrel’s performance in the post season and a bit of failure bring his market price down to a reasonable price?

    And by the way, I’m glad our crosstown rivals are getting on their Delta flights and going home.

  4. Pal88
    October 10, 2018 at 3:13 pm

    I’m just not sold on big $s for a relief pitcher..there great one year an a bust the next …to much risk…especially this one..Kimbrel. The thought of that dumb windup every appearance would drive me nuts

    Editor’s Note – Please do not capitalize words in your post, as that is a violation of our Comment Policy.

  5. MattyMets
    October 10, 2018 at 3:23 pm

    I like Kimbrel but I’d prefer to spread the risk a bit and double down with two second tier closers like Robertson and Britton. Aside from the one great year Addison Reed had, the Mets haven’t had a true closer tandem since Orosco-McDowell. Didn’t they and Taylor-McGraw have something in common?

  6. Name
    October 10, 2018 at 4:29 pm

    There’s no justification in my mind for relievers to make more than 10 mil. None.

    Hodgepodge is the way to go for relievers. Always go for quantity because they are so mercurial in performance. Last year you could have had

    Hector Rondon (3.20 ERA in 59 IP)
    David hernandez (2.53 ERA in 67 IP)
    Jared Hughes (1.94 ERA in 78 IP)
    Fernando Rodney(3.36 ERA in 64 IP)

    for $13 mil combined.

    Even if 2 of them busted you still would have gotten 2 solid relievers for less money than a supposed “elite” reliever.

    • Mike Walczak
      October 10, 2018 at 6:22 pm

      The price for a reliever like Kimbrel is very high. Need to develop one in the farm system.

      How do we pay for him ? I’d dump Bruce, that would be a good start.

      I think if we were a year closer to being a real potential playoff team, I would say maybe, but gut tells me no. Way too much money for 70 innings a year.

    • MattyMets
      October 10, 2018 at 9:27 pm

      Fernando Rodney is the bullpen Big Sexy. Every year they think he’s too old and every damn year he’s still pretty good.

      • October 10, 2018 at 10:38 pm

        2017 Colon went 7-14 with a 6.48 ERA
        2018 Colon went 7-12 with a 5.78 ERA

        Next time a Mets fan complains that nothing ever goes right for the club – just remind them how they got 3 solid years out of him and then he turned into a pumpkin as soon as he left.

    • October 10, 2018 at 10:35 pm

      True. But you also could have signed:

      Brandon Kintzler (4.60 ERA for $5 million)
      Brian Duensing (7.65 ERA for $3.5 million)
      Drew Smyly (4.88 ERA for $3 million)
      Matt Albers (7.34 ERA for $2.5 million)
      Tom Koehler (missed year with shoulder injury for $2 million)

      I don’t have any problem with saying you don’t spend big bucks on the bullpen. But the idea that you just sign four guys for cheap deals and expect two of them to work out great seems overly optimistic.

      • Name
        October 11, 2018 at 10:48 am

        Take my 4 guys, add your 4 guys (take Smyly off the list because he was signed coming off TJ) and you get a 50% rate.

        The success rate is same/worse for big money deals by the way.

        Holland(released by cards after signing for 14 mil)
        Davis (114 ERA+ for 18 mil)
        McGee (73 ERA+ for 9 mil)
        Shaw( 79 ERA+ for 9 mil)
        Morrow(1.47 ERA but in only 30 IP for 10.5 mil)
        Hunter(3.80 ERA in 64IP for 9 mil)
        NIcasio( 6.00 ERA in 42 IP for 8.5 mil)
        REed( 4.50 ERA in 56 IP for 8.25 mil)
        Neshak (2.59 ERA but only 24 IP for 8 mil)
        Joe smith(3.74 ERA in 45 IP for 7.5 mil)
        Swarzak
        Cishek(2.18 ERA in 70 IP for 6.5 mil)
        Gregerson(7.11 ERA in 14 IP for 5.5mil)

        Even if you count the partial season guys like Morrow and Neshak a success that’s still just 6 out of 13. So what’s the point of spending more when the results are the same?

        • October 11, 2018 at 11:11 am

          If you want to consider those guys equal to Kimbrel – be my guest. But that’s nowhere near his peer group in real life.

          • Name
            October 12, 2018 at 1:09 am

            Sure none of them have the career that Kimbrel has had, and none are real threats to post the sub 2 ERAs that Kimbrel did in 2012-2014. But in 3 of the past 4 years, his ERA has been in the mid 2s, of which most of the guys on that list could do in a good year.

            I think i’ve said this before, but with relievers, there are a lot of guys that can reach that elite reliever level if everything breaks right. There were 21 guys who had a higher fWAR than Kimbrel this year, and another 20 guys who were within 0.3 fWAR of him. That’s 40 other guys that were in his peer group this year.

            • Metsense
              October 12, 2018 at 8:25 am

              In principle, I have to agree with Name because relievers are a crap shoot. He makes a good point about 40 other relievers that can give similar results for one year like Kimbrel. Boston was soiling their pants that last inning with Kimbrel against the Yankees. I would rather have 2 good relievers then 1 Kimbrell. The real problem was Alderson and his staff could not evaluate talent except the summer of 2015 and they got lucky because remember they first chose Gonzales over Cespedes. How many of those relief pitchers that he obtained in the summer of 2017 have been productive? The Mets need a better GM and of course new ownership.

            • October 12, 2018 at 12:08 pm

              You can’t look at just one year.

              If you don’t want to consider his time in ATL – that’s fine. Tell me how many relievers in the past four years have put up the numbers he has.

              From an fWAR perspective his peer group is Jansen, Chapman, Betances, Miller, Osuna, Diaz, Robertson and Giles.

              Then add in durability and success in closing out games throughout the four years and it shrinks to Chapman.

              Sure you can say the only reason Miller doesn’t have the saves is because he wasn’t used in the role and when Robertson was used, he was very good. But Miller only pitched 34 innings this year and Robertson no longer overpowers people with his fastball and throws his curve as much as he does his heater. If you like that package – why not make Lugo the closer?

              No pitcher comes with a guarantee and that goes double for relievers. I wouldn’t give Familia a big long-term deal. But my view is that Kimbrel is at a different level. And in my eyes, that level makes him worth the risk.

              • Chris F
                October 12, 2018 at 1:27 pm

                +1

              • Name
                October 12, 2018 at 2:50 pm

                What Kimbrel does on a yearly basis is not inherently amazing or special. Do a query for the last 20 years – mid 2 ERAs , ~60 IP, – i’m seeing like 750 single season examples. His more dominant seasons of mid 1s ERA? Can still find at least 100. This year alone – Jose Leclerec, jeremy jefferes, blake treinen- fit that billing.

                A lot of other players (often time random nobodies) can replicate the max potential season of a guy like Kimbrel.
                Contrast that to a top position player like Trout or starter like deGrom. Very few guys, if none, can reach the max potential of them. Which is why i think it’s more acceptable to overreach and overpay for a starter or position player, but not a reliever.

  7. Eraff
    October 10, 2018 at 10:14 pm

    Swarczak…Ramos…Blevins…. that was incredibly bad. Ramos looked bad from the moment they acquired him. Swarz never got started—pretty much the same for Blevins. It was as if they didnt know what a reliever looked like.

    I would like to se JF back

  8. TJ
    October 10, 2018 at 10:43 pm

    Count me in as one who wants to shy away from Kimbrel and the one big fish mentality. I actually think they need 3 high quality additions, including two guys who can reliably close. Every season has it share of garbage innings, but my plan would be to eliminate as many of those lousy bullpen innings in games that can be won. Depth and backend redundancy for me….Familia and Britton would be nice, and maybe a deal for another, and some non-roster invitees.

    Money-wise, they’ll just have to do what it takes. Theoretically, I agree with Name. But supply, demand, and specific team needs means they’ll need to be aggressive without being dumb.

  9. Metsense
    October 11, 2018 at 7:14 am

    The Mets desperately need relief pitching. If they targeted Craig Kimbrel then they would be putting all their eggs in one very expensive basket. Kimbrel was paid $13 million dollars this past season. It is rumored he is going to break the record for a salary of a relief pitcher. I don’t think that this would be a good move for the Mets. Instead I would Target both 29 year old closers who have similar statistics and experience. That would be Kelvin Herrera and Jeurys Familia. They both got paid around 8 million dollars last season. I would sign both and solve the problem of the bullpen.
    The Mets would have to adjust how they use their bullpen. When the starter falters then bring Herrera in to be a fireman and put out a fire in the sixth or seventh inning. Callaway should use Lugo, Gsellman and Oswalt as multi inning relievers to bridge to the closer, Familia.
    Strong starters followed by a fireman, if a fire needs to be put out, then a multi inning good pitcher and then wrap it up with your closer. It is not what is being done in baseball but the Mets have the personnel to do it.
    Sign both relievers and Grandal and take the Division championship home.

  10. TexasGusCC
    October 11, 2018 at 10:39 am

    Kimbral to the Nats who when teamed with Barraclough, who they got for literally nothing from the Marlins, and Doolittle’s easy option will remake their bullpen and next year close a loophole that they had for many years.

  11. Eric Bloom
    October 11, 2018 at 7:11 pm

    If the top 4 starters can average 6+ innings, everyone in the bullpen will improve. I like the idea of a Familia reunion, but I don’t really trust him in “must-win” or “must-save” situations. I like that Adam Ottavino guy. And I’m wondering about Franklin Kilome possibly in the pen next year.

    • October 11, 2018 at 8:50 pm

      Interestingly, despite pitching in Colorado, Ottavino has performed better at home than on the road throughout his career. And LHB give him trouble. Power arm, would be nice to have as a bullpen guy but I’m thinking someone will pay him more than I would.

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