Why you shouldn't believe the Red Sox are out on Craig Kimbrel


LAS VEGAS — Step away from the idea that the Red Sox are out on Craig Kimbrel. The state of the team, a consideration of typical negotiating tactics, and the events of this slow offseason reveal a different picture than the team's public line.

Multiple agents with appealing high-leverage relievers have heard from the Sox that the team has interest in their clients, but were told the Sox are waiting to see what happens with Kimbrel. That message just doesn’t fit with Sox president of baseball operations’ Dave Dombrowski’s public stance, that the team isn’t looking to make a big expenditure on a closer.

When Dombrowski made that comment on Monday, he pointed out he was speaking generally about the position, rather than about Kimbrel, but the technicality doesn’t really matter. The comment, effectively a tone setter on Day One of the meetings, suggested to the world that the Sox are essentially out on Kimbrel. A suggestion that, in turn, could potentially affect his market.

Dombrowski really may have been posturing, in other words. And doing so with the hope that Kimbrel winds up with a subpar market — one the Sox want to appear passive in — thereby paving the way, they hope, to a potential discount. 

If the market proves as competitive as Kimbrel hopes, maybe they’ll just move on. But like J.D. Martinez last offseason, if the Sox sense there is the chance to wait out a top player, we know they have a willingness to do so. Nate Eovaldi was a hotter ticket than Kimbrel has been thus far, with fewer strong alternatives.

Remember that the bullpen remains a sensitive area, even with some highly talented relievers in Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier. Dombrowski had a reputation in Detroit that followed him to Boston of having trouble building bullpens, and the Sox had two of their key relievers as free agents to start the offseason. (One of those two went off the board when Joe Kelly signed with the Dodgers late Wednesday night.)

On a win-now team like the Sox, with the ability and willingness to carry a huge payroll, having uncertainty at the back-end of the ‘pen just feels unnecessary. There's no greater area of focus for them this winter, and they're upfront about that.

Remember too: the Sox wanted to add their bullpen at last year’s trade deadline. A deal for Kelvin Herrera was close. They wound up successful without an addition, winning the World Series, as Kelly and others, like Ryan Brasier, stepped up mightily. (So, too, did starters.) 

But the sense of need in the ‘pen for the next 162-game season doesn’t disappear because everything worked out in October.  

Could the money work? There’s an increase in the highest luxury tax threshold this year, up to $246 million from $237 million, which the Sox would like to stay under after surpassing it in 2018. But Kimbrel likely won’t be making a ton more on an annual basis than he was in 2018, when he had a $13 million salary. Speculatively, he’ll make something in the mid- to high-teens annually.

Theoretically, the Sox could backload a deal if they wanted, or they could simply sign Kimbrel to a high average annual value but perhaps fewer years. And if the market gets too rich for their blood, or they have to move because others are flying off the board — something that doesn’t appear imminent at all — they can go in a different direction. And they have made inroads on that front.

Kimbrel didn’t have his best year in 2018, but he was dealing with a ton emotionally because of the health of his young daughter. Even though he’s not getting any younger, he’s still one of the best relievers in the game, with the potential to be better in 2019 so long as he stays healthy — and he has stayed remarkably healthy in his career.

Dombrowski said Wednesday that a potential short deal for a closer with a high AAV would also, likely, qualify to him as a big expenditure. So Dombrowski essentially downplayed the idea he’s looking for Kimbrel even at a discount.

But that’s what happens this time of year. Kimbrel may be asking for the moon, Dombrowski may be playing coy. Arguably, both should be doing that, and seem to be.

The bottom line is the Sox know they have a win-now team. They know they need to reinforce the bullpen, and that Kimbrel would be a loss. Dombrowski is trying his hardest to keep the 2018 roster together, and it’s a stretch to believe that the Sox are really out on Kimbrel when they’re giving others in the industry the opposite message.

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