Craig Kimbrel leaving might be rare moment where weakening team makes sense


LAS VEGAS — If it’s possible to both make a team weaker and act smartly at the same time, the Red Sox appear to be walking down that path. But boy, it'd be great to know how much money is really involved in the whole operation.

Paying Craig Kimbrel as a free agent this winter won't make sense by most measures. Signing him and ponying up for a legacy of saves is not an efficient use of money. The Sox have already spent a ton for 2019, and they’ll need to spend plenty to retain their stars in coming seasons.

To that end — and it is just one end — the Sox have a wise stance. On the first day of the winter meetings, Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski tacitly acknowledged the team is looking beyond Kimbrel, when he said the team isn’t looking to make “a big expenditure” on a closer. 

“Read that as you may,” Dombrowski added.

Unless Kimbrel decides to take a short-term contract — and why would he? — he’s absolutely going to fall into the category of a “big expenditure” this winter.

“You’re in a position where, again, there’s so many dollars to go around as you proceed in the long term,” Dombrowski explained. “And we still have other things that we’re looking at for the long term that aren’t concluded. And there also might be the possibility to not have to do long-term to add a reliever].”

Efficient spending helps an organization. Realistically, we know there’s a boundary to what Sox ownership will spend, so it’s in the fan interest to see dollars spent wisely. But the limit itself is hard to parse. 

Teams don’t make their profits and revenues public, never mind what owners have in reserve or access to. If they did, might we sit back and say — hey, they should be able to afford Kimbrel, and also achieve their other long-term goals? 

The Sox owners outspent everyone in 2018, and they should be applauded for that. But the fact is, we really don’t know how much they’re raking in with all their Sox-associated ventures.

So, put efficient spending aside for a moment, and answer this: How else do the Red Sox improve this winter if not in their bullpen? Perhaps Matt Barnes, who had very similar peripheral numbers to Kimbrel in 2018 can step into Kimbrel’s role seamlessly. It could happen.

Yet, the Sox’ situation is exactly the one where efficient spending can sometimes be secondary. They have an elite team. How do you upgrade, if not spend inefficiently? How do you maintain the status quo, even, if not spend inefficiently? 

Losing Kimbrel, as the Sox seem prepared to do, probably means the 2019 team will not be positioned as well the 2018 version. The ’19 Sox will remain incredibly strong, a favorite, a powerhouse — all of those things. The loss of Kimbrel may prove negligible. There’s a chance he’s declining. He did not have his best year and was shaky nearly every time he pitched in the playoffs. 

The Sox also probably won’t need 108 wins to win the division again. (Expecting even the exact same group of guys to win 108 games two years in a row would be madness. Injuries, drop-offs — they’re bound to happen. Other teams rise up, and so on.)

So it is a loss, essentially, that they can live with. Plus, there are reasons to move on from Kimbrel beyond the money.

The righty's preference to be a traditional closer is not ideal in today’s game. Pitcher roles are being redefined in some organizations, where “openers” are used in place of traditional starters, and some elite relievers jump from situation to situation nightly. Of course, plenty of organizations still believe in carrying a closer.

Dombrowski and Alex Cora both said Monday they’d be comfortable without having a named closer to begin spring training. Barnes, Ryan Braiser, perhaps Joe Kelly — if he re-signs, and there’s no way the Sox can sign both Kelly and Kimbrel, a source said — could all compete. But there’d be an unknown quantity in a place where there once was a known quantity, even with some warts. 

Dombrowski said the team does want to add a reliever, be it someone with closing experience or just high-leverage experience. The Sox may not wait for Kimbrel to make his choice to add an arm, either, Dombrowski said.

Yet there’s a bottom line here that's inescapable: the Sox will likely be a lesser club without Kimbrel.

“There’s a risk associated,” Dombrowski said of potentially moving from an established closer to someone unknown. “I don’t want to say that there’s not. But is it a risk worth taking, we think’s worth taking? Yes, if it comes down to it. But we’re not at that point of making that decision.”

Sounds like the budget and concern for the future have already made the decision for the Sox. That's smart, if we take the Sox at their word when they imply they can't afford Kimbrel, and we don't really have a choice.

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