Through the first week of the season, 15 of the 30 teams in the Majors carried a bullpen ERA of 4.00 or higher, including three with bloated marks over 7.00.
Enter Craig Kimbrel. The seven-time All-Star -- who has topped 40 saves in five separate seasons while striking out 868 batters in 532 2/3 career innings -- is still on the free-agent market after not finding a deal to his liking all offseason.
Looking at current bullpen situations, which clubs might have the biggest need for Kimbrel? Let’s take a look at some candidates. And before we dive in, it’s worth noting the Red Sox gave Kimbrel a qualifying offer, so any team that signs him will have to forfeit some sort of Draft pick compensation, except for the Red Sox, of course. However, if Kimbrel, who turns 31 in May, waits until after the June Draft to sign, no one will have to give up a Draft pick if they sign him.
Now, on to the suitors …
Kimbrel made his name in the Majors pitching for Atlanta, making the National League All-Star team in each of his first four full seasons (2011-14). There were rumors all offseason about a potential reunion, and now with A.J. Minter dealing with left shoulder inflammation and several relievers off to inauspicious starts, Atlanta's bullpen could certainly use an arm of Kimbrel’s caliber.
Corey Knebel’s torn UCL -- and subsequent season-ending Tommy John surgery -- leaves a sizable hole in Milwaukee’s bullpen, though Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress remain as staples of its relief corps. Hader might be the best reliever in the game, but Jeffress is on the injured list with a right shoulder issue. The rest of the bullpen has gotten off to an admirable start, but losing Knebel for the season presents an obvious opportunity for the Brewers to pursue Kimbrel, who would provide a proven closer, allowing Hader to be deployed in high-leverage spots throughout the game.
The Cubs’ bullpen has struggled terribly in the opening week, and even with Brandon Morrow (offseason right elbow debridement) sidelined for at least the first month of the season, manager Joe Maddon insists that he’s confident in his group. You’d have to imagine that Maddon would be more confident with Kimbrel, who would allow Morrow to settle into a setup role in which he excelled with the Dodgers, once he returns, while moving Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. (who was sent to Triple-A on Saturday after experiencing some early velocity issues) back an inning to provide more depth. The biggest obstacle might be payroll, which continues to be an issue for the front office when it comes to making additions.
Joe Kelly, the Dodgers’ primary offseason bullpen addition, is off to a rough start, which was compounded when he took a line drive off his right wrist from Charlie Blackmon in Friday's 10-6 win over the Rockies. Meanwhile, Tony Cingrani’s shoulder has him on the injured list with no definitive timetable to return. Zach McAllister was signed to a Minor League contract this week to provide depth, but he’s coming off a subpar 2018 and was cut by the Rangers at the end of Spring Training. Kenley Jansen is firmly entrenched as the team’s closer, but bringing in Kimbrel to create a lethal 1-2 punch at the back end of the bullpen would enable Dave Roberts to mix and match the rest of his relievers as a bridge from the starter to the eighth inning.
The biggest question here is if Kimbrel (or Jansen) would be happy in a non-closer role, as accumulating saves could be their path to Cooperstown. Kimbrel, for example, has 333 career saves and needs 92 more to pass John Franco and move into the all-time top five, and if he gets to 500 he would join Hall of Famers Mariano Rivera (652) and Trevor Hoffman (601) as the only members of the 500-save club. But if there is one team where Kimbrel might be willing to sign even if he won’t rack up as many saves, it would be one that has been to the last two World Series and is a favorite to return.
Washington's bullpen has some outrageous numbers through the first full week of games, featuring three relievers with double-digit ERAs and another with a mark of infinity. Trevor Rosenthal, signed for $7 million this offseason after missing a year following Tommy John surgery, has yet to retire a batter in three appearances, allowing a whopping seven earned runs in the process. Sean Doolittle, Justin Miller and Kyle Barraclough have been solid, but the addition of Kimbrel would move Doolittle into a more versatile role, sliding everybody back a spot in the pecking order in a bullpen that needs a boost of some kind.
Since the moment Kimbrel filed for free agency, a return to Boston has been the most obvious landing spot for the seven-time All-Star, who played a key role in last year’s World Series championship despite a shaky postseason. The Red Sox are using Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier in the late innings, and having lost Kelly in free agency, Boston is counting on a number of unproven relief arms. The club’s high payroll and luxury-tax situation might be the biggest obstacle in terms of a reunion with Kimbrel, but the fit is clear from a baseball standpoint.