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Should the Mariners sign Craig Kimbrel?

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 Mariners have been a barrel of fun to watch offensively. Watching the bullpen, however, has been watching that same barrel gradually build pressure and then explode, driving shards of barrel directly into our collective retinas. This has led, obviously, to some calls that the team should sign Craig Kimbrel, the best free agent reliever left on the market. Setting aside the fact that this isn’t a path we believe the team would take in the first place we decided to work a point/counterpoint on a few of the key reasons for and against a Kimbrel signing.

The draft pick

K: This is the biggest reason Kimbrel doesn’t make sense for the Mariners, at least right now. Boston tagged Kimbrel with a QO, a Qualifying Offer, before sending him out on the free-agent market, which means any team that signs him loses their third-highest draft choice. For the Mariners, this would mean parting with the competitive balance draft pick they engineered in the Encarnación trade, pick number 76. That’s about where current Mariner farmhand Jake Fraley was picked in 2016, the PadresJacob Nix in 2015, or the RaysBrent Honeywell in 2014. These aren’t necessarily star players, but a Top-100 draft pick carries significantly more value than a player drafted in the fourth round or higher. The Mariners aren’t a small-market team, so they don’t get the compensation picks awarded to teams like Cleveland or Tampa Bay without trading for them. That makes the process of rebuilding a farm a slow and arduous one for a team like the Mariners, while meanwhile Tampa Bay has one of the best farms ever assembled. The value of the draft pick is simply too high for the Mariners to give it up, and would be counterproductive to the work they did this off-season.

(If we expand to the third round, here’s a brief list of players chosen in the third round: Jesus Luzardo, Braden Bishop, Tyler O’Neill, Daniel Palka, Ryon Healy, Edwin Diaz, Addison Reed, JT Realmuto, Sam Tuivailala, Kyle Seager, Wil Myers, Jake Marisnick, and....Craig Kimbrel. No, not every player taken in the third round is a star or even an everyday MLBer, but there is plenty of value there still, especially for a club focused on development.)

J: While Kate is correct that the loss of the 3rd-highest draft pick comes at an extra premium for the Mariners, I’m suspicious of how the timeline for Seattle’s stated future window of contention fits with that conservative approach. Edwin Díaz was a wunderkind, and his drafting came all the way back in 2012. His relatively quick path to the majors still only got him to Seattle by mid-2016, and he was a raw player until 2018. That aggressive timeline would deliver a 2019 draftee to Seattle by 2023 at the earliest. That’s not to say draft patience is unimportant, but if we’re hoarding picks for the prospects and players they’ll become, we should be aware of the timeline they’ll demand to deliver MLB results.

The player himself

K: Craig Kimbrel is just two seasons removed from a three-win season, an amazing achievement for a reliever, but that season is sandwiched by two less impressive years that together don’t add up to his extraordinary 2017. Kimbrel’s success in 2017 was largely driven by elite strikeout-to-walk numbers, and while his swinging strike percentage remains one of the most consistent in baseball (although behind the elite tier of relievers in baseball, Diaz and Hader and Treinen and...Hector Neris?), Kimbrel’s walk rate shot up to a career high in 2018. His curve has a tick or two, down to 86-87 from 87-88, and while his fastball velocity is still elite, it too is down, to 96-97 from 98-99.

None of this is to say Craig Kimbrel isn’t a reliever who would significantly bolster any bullpen. Even given his long layoff, Kimbrel would step into the Mariners bullpen and immediately become its best member. The question is the cost. Kimbrel was reportedly seeking a deal in the six-year, $100 million range. While that price tag has surely dropped somewhat that’s money that could go to extending one of the Mariners’ younger core players or, more importantly, bolster the Mariners’ weak rotation. Even if the Mariners were to make a significant offer to Kimbrel, they would have to outbid the other teams vying for his services (if Kimbrel is even interested in being a Mariner).

J: I see Kimbrel as a top-10 reliever in the game still, with command issues being a mild concern but mostly mitigated by his lengthy track record of excellence. Even with some Greg Holland potential after his multi-month layoff, Kimbrel’s impact would be a firm positive for the M’s pen. Since 2015, every season of Kimbrel’s falls in the top-30 of individual seasons by K% for all relievers during that time. Even with the juiced ball, working in T-Mobile Park is a safer locale than Boston.

But the contract and the assumptions about the return in a potential trade are where things break bad for me. The conceit of signing Kimbrel essentially breaks down to this thought process: Kimbrel is an elite reliever, and signing/trading elite relievers is a great way to build your future talent. It’s a logical framework, and one we’ve seen work out several times, but with Kimbrel (and the Mariners) it’s not so simple. A few things come into play.

Unless you have reason to believe the Huntsville, Alabama native would choose Seattle over teams in closer proximity to his home or with better cases at contention, we can assume Kimbrel is still holding out for the highest offer. Since no team has made a satisfactory proposal, it stands to reason you’d be signing him for more $ than 29 other teams were willing to offer, meaning the trade piece you’ve just acquired is immediately at a price point no other team in MLB wanted him at, and the potential trade return would suffer accordingly. Should Kimbrel be lights out, you can probably move him, provided you eat money or take a lesser prospect return that hopefully still also outdoes the lost draft pick. I won’t lose any sleep over the M’s ownership footing a slightly larger payroll to improve in 2019 as well as beyond, but until we figure out a different system each team’s potential will be capped by the financial courage and means of its ruling billionaires.

As such, it introduces several variables into the equation that the M’s have little to no control over. The potential for an incremental improvement over the 77th-pick in terms of value is there, but the risk of losing far more for the future is significant. Should Kimbrel remain unsigned through June, the risk drops immensely, and the M’s would be well-served to sign Kimbrel, as the only remaining risk will be the loss of money and flexibility. Hey, Kimbrel could even be an important reliever in the 2021 pen.

The nature of bullpens

K: The old chestnut is “bullpens are fungible”, even if the Mariners’ current ‘pen is a little more “terriblegible.” While it’s frustrating to look down the line at Tacoma and not see anything helpful or hopeful there, relievers can move quickly, and their fortunes can change quickly, for good or bad. Connor Sadzeck has only pitched about 10 innings, but is showing much better command of the zone than in his brief stint as a Texas Ranger, cutting his walk rate by two-thirds. Brandon Brennan has gone from long-term minor leaguer to outside-shot Rule 5 pick to one of the most reliable arms coming out of the M’s bullpen. And while some of the other outside-shot arms like Tyler Danish and Tayler Scott aren’t working out, there are potential gems hidden in the system in a pair of former indyballers who are finding career resurgences with the Mariners in fireballing Jake Haberer, currently at Modesto, and Parker Markel, recently promoted to Triple-A Tacoma.

The Mariners bullpen doesn’t have to be great; if the offense can continue walloping the pitching dregs of the American League, the bullpen merely has to be competent. Roenis Elias, Chasen Bradford, Brandon Brennan, Anthony Swarzak, and Connor Sadzeck aren’t exciting names, but they are all serviceable relievers, many of whom can offer some length out of the pen. All the bullpen needs to do is weather the storm until Hunter Strickland returns, and that’s six relatively solid relievers to use regularly while limiting the innings given to the less effective relievers. When your offense is scoring an MLB-best 6.4 runs per game, “relatively solid” will work.

J: There’s no question Kimbrel takes the M’s bullpen and drags it towards average. Augmenting the Strange Brigade coming in for the M’s in the games later stages would make 2019 more successful, and can help the team contend now and in the future. He’s 30-years-old, far from ancient in bullpen parlance, and if he commands a 4+ year deal as would be expected, he could improve the Mariners for years to come with stability in high-leverage situations.

It’s also worth noting that Kimbrel is great to watch. Amusing as it is to see leads rise and fall like overzealous puff pastries, Mariners fans saw the glory of having confidence in a 9th inning lead last year, and it felt good. The stability of one player trickles throughout the entire bullpen, putting less pressure on guys like Swarzak, Elías, and Brennan to be dynamite every night. Few pitchers in the league have the wipeout stuff Kimbrel does, and if he regains his command he’ll be a truly elite force once again.

But a Kimbrel deal introduces a player the Mariners suddenly need health, success, and production from in a way unlike any other. The risk is significant, and if it had the potential to yield a haul like Aroldis Chapman or Kimbrel himself once brought, it’d be a slam dunk. As it is, however, similarly gifted players are no longer commanding the same trade hauls, and whatever significant contract he brings will hold teams back from trading prospects en masse.

Last year, a package of a similarly effective, younger, cheaper closer in Brad Hand and another above-average cost-controlled reliever in Adam Cimber yielded one top-50 prospect last July. That’s an absolute pie-in-the-sky scenario for a Kimbrel sign and trade at this point. Signing Kimbrel could easily work out for the Mariners if he returns to his elite 2017 or early Braves form. But any other outcome costs the Mariners farm system and depth in the present and future, and until June the reward isn’t realistically worth the risk.