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8 contenders who could use Craig Kimbrel

@feinsand
June 3, 2019

Craig Kimbrel hasn’t thrown a competitive pitch since last year’s World Series, but that could finally change in the near future. As of Monday morning, any team signing the All-Star closer will no longer be penalized with any Draft-related compensation, opening the door for Kimbrel (and fellow free agent Dallas

Craig Kimbrel hasn’t thrown a competitive pitch since last year’s World Series, but that could finally change in the near future.

As of Monday morning, any team signing the All-Star closer will no longer be penalized with any Draft-related compensation, opening the door for Kimbrel (and fellow free agent Dallas Keuchel) to sign in the coming days.

Several teams around the league are in need of bullpen help, but it’s tough to envision a rebuilding club, such as the Orioles or Marlins, making a move for the 31-year-old. Whether an underachieving team like the Nationals would make the financial commitment to Kimbrel also remains to be seen, but it seems more likely that a contender would be compelled to make a big move for the closer.

The biggest question surrounding Kimbrel is this: what is he willing to sign for? The early-winter talk of him wanting a five- or six-year contract is gone, but unlike Keuchel, who appears to be willing to sign a one-year deal and become a free agent again next offseason, Kimbrel is said to be seeking a three-year deal worth $15 million to $17 million per year. Can he find a team to give him that?

Here’s a look at some contending clubs that could benefit from adding Kimbrel to their bullpens:

Cubs

The Cubs rank fourth in the National League with a 4.08 bullpen ERA, but several relievers they were counting on (Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop) have struggled badly, while Brandon Morrow has yet to throw a pitch. Steve Cishek’s five saves lead the team, so there’s an obvious need for a proven closer such as Kimbrel to bolster the relief corps. The question now is the same as the offseason: Is Chicago willing to spend the money to add such an arm?

Dodgers

The Dodgers have been a juggernaut through the first two-plus months of the season, but their bullpen remains the weakest link on the roster. Joe Kelly has struggled in his first season with Los Angeles -- a contributor to the club’s 4.79 bullpen ERA, which is good for 11th in the NL. Kimbrel would give the Dodgers a lethal 1-2 punch with closer Kenley Jansen, though it remains to be seen whether Kimbrel is set on joining a team with which he can close.

Red Sox

Boston’s 4.02 bullpen ERA ranks sixth in the American League, which is something of a surprise after the Red Sox let Kimbrel and Kelly leave via free agency. The closer-by-committee approach has worked for the most part, but adding Kimbrel back into the mix would allow pitchers such as Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes to move into setup roles and give manager Alex Cora more options. The luxury tax will be a factor, as the Red Sox would have to pay more for Kimbrel than just his salary. A reunion feels unlikely, but you can never say never.

Braves

The Braves were the team most connected to Kimbrel this winter, which makes sense given that he pitched the first five years of his career with Atlanta. Two months into the regular season, the fit is even more obvious: The Braves’ 4.45 bullpen ERA ranks 10th in the NL and the closer spot has been a black hole. Luke Jackson leads the team with eight saves, but he has four blown saves to go with them. The Mets and Nationals have been disappointments, leaving the Braves as the primary challenger to the Phillies in the NL East. If one of those two teams sign Kimbrel, that could be a difference maker.

Phillies

That brings us to the Phillies, who felt really good about their bullpen entering the season following the offseason acquisition of David Robertson. Héctor Neris has pitched well, but Seranthony Domínguez has been uneven, and Robertson appeared in only seven games before landing on the injured list with an elbow issue. Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter have also been dealing with arm injuries, leaving room in the bullpen for a big arm such as Kimbrel.

Padres

The Padres’ bullpen has been anchored by Kirby Yates, who leads the Majors with 22 saves, so the closer spot has not been an issue for San Diego. Still, the unit’s 4.35 ERA puts them in the middle of the NL, leaving room for improvement. Kimbrel would expect to close ahead of Yates based on their track records, so any chance of him signing in San Diego might depend on Yates’ willingness to embrace a role change. It’s not an obvious fit, but Kimbrel would certainly make the Padres a better team.

Twins

The Twins have been among the biggest surprises in baseball this season, as their 40-18 record accounts for the best record in the Majors. The offense leads the Majors in runs and homers, while the rotation ranks second in the AL with a 3.55 ERA. The bullpen? That’s been one of Minnesota’s only weaknesses this season -- its 4.37 ERA ranks 10th in the AL. Five different pitchers have a save this season, led by Blake Parker’s eight. Adding a proven closer such as Kimbrel could put the Twins over the top.

Rays

The Rays have gotten contributions from several relievers this season, leaving the group fourth in the AL with a 3.53 bullpen ERA. The closer-by-committee approach has worked well for the innovative Rays, but locking down the ninth inning with a proven closer such as Kimbrel would allow manager Kevin Cash to deploy his other arms in a variety of ways. Tampa Bay isn’t usually in the mix for big-name free agents, but Kimbrel’s strange free-agent experience could present a rare opportunity for the Rays to get involved.

Mark Feinsand, an executive reporter, originally joined MLB.com as a reporter in 2001.