And then there was one: Craig Kimbrel.
Kimbrel — the No. 1 free-agent reliever entering the offseason — is now the last high-end reliever still on the market. Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, David Robertson, Jeurys Familia, Joe Kelly, Adam Ottavino … they’ve all signed. Kimbrel’s alone at the top.
So who should go get him?
These aren’t necessarily teams with rumored interest in Kimbrel — although there’s been plenty of that. The list also includes closer-needy teams for whom Kimbrel could be the missing piece, and contenders who have strong bullpens already but need that one extra arm to put them over the top.
Kimbrel would make a lot of teams better, period. Let’s break them up into categories and count them down.
IN THE BULLPEN ARMS RACE
These teams might have a closer already. But given the outsized importance of bullpens today, especially in the postseason, there’s always room to make a good relief corps great.
The Mets already went out and got an elite closer in Edwin Diaz. Then they brought back Familia to set him up. But look at what their crosstown rivals, The Yankees, and other recent powerhouse teams like the Astros have done: built bullpen monsters. The Yankees’ big five relievers — Aroldis Chapman, Britton, Dellin Betances, Adam Ottavino and Chad Green — show a blueprint Brodie Van Wagenen and the Mets could follow to contention. Imagine a pitching staff with Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler at the top of the starting rotation and Diaz, Kimbrel and Familia anchoring the bullpen.
The Indians’ bullpen dominance behind Miller, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw was such a key to their run to Game 7 of the World Series in 2016 — and their bullpen shakiness last season was the club’s most glaring concern. With Miller (Cardinals) and Allen (Angels) leaving in free agency this winter, the Indians could certainly use a replacement relief ace. Would Kimbrel, Brad Hand and Adam Cimber recreate the look of the ’16 bullpen? Maybe. But the Indians don’t seem inclined to chase a reliever seeking the kind of deal Kimbrel is reportedly after.
The NL East is shaping up to be hotly competitive in 2019. The Nats, Mets, Braves and Phillies have all already made big splashes since the offseason began. Washington has a good closer in Sean Doolittle, and has added a couple of arms in Kyle Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal. But the Nationals have had their bullpen woes in recent seasons, and if they went after Kimbrel, it would help them keep up with the Mets — and have the added bonus of keeping Kimbrel away from Atlanta and Philadelphia, which are both strong potential landing spots.
Brandon Morrow is a capable closer when healthy — he had a 1.47 ERA and 22 saves in his 35-game Cubs debut last year — but he’s recovering from arthroscopic elbow surgery and won’t be ready by Opening Day. Chicago has late-inning options in Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop, but they could use some bullpen security, and Kimbrel is the only big free-agent name remaining now that Ottavino has signed with New York. Plus, even with Morrow and those other three, Kimbrel would give the Cubs the type of elite-level closer they had in their deeper playoff runs of 2016 (Chapman) and ’17 (Wade Davis).
The newly signed Miller has closer ability, and flamethrowing 22-year-old Jordan Hicks looks like a closer of the future for St. Louis. But the Cardinals are all-in for 2019 after trading for Paul Goldschmidt, so why not make another marquee move for Kimbrel and take the bullpen to the next level? Miller’s biggest value with the Indians was his versatility, as he was able to shut down high-leverage situations regardless of the inning in which they arose. Kimbrel could lock down the ninth inning and give the Cards the same flexibility that Cleveland had with Miller.
THE NEED, BUT NOT THE LINK
These teams could really use a closer, especially a top-tier one like Kimbrel. So the fit is there. But they haven’t necessarily been linked to him — or the top of the relief market — this offseason, for various reasons.
The Rockies have now made back-to-back trips to the postseason, but they’ve lost Ottavino to The Yankees and are faced with a lot of bullpen question marks. Closer Davis led the NL with 43 saves in 2018, but he also had a 4.13 ERA, his highest mark since he was converted to a reliever five years ago. More significantly, two of the relievers Colorado expected to play major roles — Shaw and Jake McGee — struggled so badly in 2018 that they were left off the playoff roster. Maybe they bounce back. But it’s a stark contrast from Kimbrel, who might have the most consistently dominant track record of any closer in the game today.
7. White Sox
The White Sox are among the chief suitors for megastar free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. If they land one and decide their window is now, then a big-name relief upgrade would suddenly make a lot of sense. They’ve already made a pair of savvy bullpen additions this offseason, trading for Alex Colome and signing bounceback candidate Kelvin Herrera. Colome is currently slated to close, but he showed his value as a setup man to Diaz in Seattle last season and could slot in similarly behind Kimbrel. Herrera, meanwhile, has been part of a three-headed bullpen monster before — in his Kansas City days alongside Davis and Greg Holland.
The Rays get all the attention for their “Openers.” But what about a closer? The Rays maximize their relievers through innovative strategy and usage, but if they want to improve on their surprise 90-win 2018, finding a true back-end reliever might prove important. Tampa Bay has talented arms, like the hard-throwing trio of Jose Alvarado, Diego Castillo and Ryne Stanek, but Kimbrel would offer a whole different level of stability. And again, like the Allen-Miller pairing in Cleveland showed, having an established closer type only enhances the ability to be flexible with the rest of the bullpen. Now, Kimbrel’s asking price doesn’t exactly gel with the Rays’ typical approach to free agency, but they’re opportunistic, and maybe Kimbrel’s market never materializes the way he wants it.
The Twins are gearing up to challenge the Indians in the AL Central in 2019. They clearly think their young core is ready to make the leap, and they’ve added a lot of power to their offense by grabbing Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop. But after those acquisitions, the back end of their bullpen still looks like it needs a boost. They did sign Blake Parker, they have some other options like Addison Reed and Trevor May, and Taylor Rogers might be the best reliever you’ve never heard of. But those guys just aren’t in Kimbrel’s class. On the other hand, as a bridge to Kimbrel… that could a strong group. Minnesota might have to wait out the market, but the idea of adding an elite closer should be a tantalizing one, especially since the Twins’ bullpen was a big question mark even during their surprise run to the playoffs two years ago.
The Angels just signed Allen to a one-year, $8.5 million deal to take over their closer job. But the former Tribe closer got such a modest deal because 2018 was the worst full season of his career — his ERA jumped to 4.70 when it had never even been over 3.00 in a full season. One reason Allen was brought in was to serve as a veteran anchor to a relatively raw bullpen group in Anaheim. Kimbrel could do that, too, and he’d be a much a bigger upgrade. The Angels are in perennial win-now mode with Mike Trout entering the final two seasons of his contract. Their upgrades so far this offseason have been smaller-scale, but they’ve made big — and surprising — signings before.
These are the true best fits as we stand today: the teams that have the need for a closer of Kimbrel’s caliber, and reportedly have the desire to sign him. Kimbrel would be a perfect match for any of these three teams, if they can agree on the right price.
You can’t top this one for narrative. Atlanta is where it all started for Kimbrel, and he helped lead three playoff bullpens there. It’s hard to beat it from a fit standpoint, too. That’s no knock on Arodys Vizcaino, who’s capable in his own right, but a bullpen with him setting up Kimbrel looks a lot better than one that funnels to him. The reigning NL East champs have their work cut out for them to stay atop the division, especially given the moves their rivals are making alongside them. Bringing back Kimbrel could help make the difference. The Braves are also focused on the outfield and starting rotation, but the possibility of a reunion has been floated all offseason, and as Spring Training draws closer with Kimbrel still unsigned, the chances only get stronger.
The Phillies’ bullpen is good. It could get even better. And the club has made it known it is looking to make major upgrades this offseason, as evidenced by its pursuit of Machado and Harper. The Phillies’ No. 1 priority is getting one of those guys, but they have been linked to what feels like every big-name free agent on the market, and Kimbrel is no exception. Multiple reports this week suggested that the Phils could turn their attention to Kimbrel following a Harper or Machado signing. A relief corps featuring Kimbrel, newly signed Robertson, Seranthony Dominguez, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter would stack up against the best across baseball.
1. Red Sox
It only makes sense that the team that needs Kimbrel the most is the team that might lose him. The Red Sox bullpen looks like one big question mark, and while having already lost Kelly to the Dodgers doesn’t help, the root cause is the vacancy Kimbrel has left in the closer role — for now. With Boston’s lack of a proven ninth-inning option, coupled with the super bullpen the archrival Yankees have constructed, the pressure could be mounting on the Red Sox to re-sign their closer as they start their title defense.
The Sox might not want to splurge on a reliever, judging from president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski’s comments this offseason, but they’re running out of good options. If they can wait out Kimbrel and he lowers his asking price, it’s especially hard not to see the Red Sox as the leading candidate to get him.