Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Implications: Kimbrel's Arbitration Case

Monday, February 17, 2014.

That’s the hearing date for Craig Kimbrel‘s epic arbitration case.  His agent will present a case to justify a 2014 salary of $9 million.  The Braves will counter by defending their decision to offer $6.55 million.

We’ve written a lot – and so have many others – on why this is an interesting case, the prior comparable closers that will be used in the hearing, opinions on who might win, and such.  This will focus on the potential fallout that will occur when the arbitrator’s decision is handed down.


It’s All About That Baseline Number

If Atlanta wins, Kimbrel gets $6.55 million, and the 2014 payroll should be close to $96,000,000.  If they lose, it’s close to $98.5 million.

The Braves can afford it – either way – but there are short term and long term implications wrapped around that $6.55 million number.

This first arbitration number year establishes the baseline salary that can be used for future arbitration negotiations/hearings.  It is more-or-less intended to approximate a value representing 40% of a player’s annual worth if he were an open-market free agent.  The Braves’ $6.55m figure translates to $16.375 million as a free agent, which would be the highest salary for a closer in the history of baseball, exceeding any salary received by Mariano Rivera in his entire career in the New York market.

Similarly, the $9 million figure Kimbrel is asking for translates to $22.5 million.  Now of course, after this year, those projections can go up and down as his performance fluctuates, but that’s the trajectory he would be on if he wins.

In this case, a picture would be helpful:


Note that if everything continues equally, Kimbrel’s salary would exceed that of every closer – ever – by at least 2017.  As I say, there can be fluctuations based on performance (that’s the purpose of the blue and yellow ‘cones’ on the chart – to show what such changes could look like).  The red names and dashed lines show the highest single-season salaries ever paid to the closers named at right.  So far, though, you could argue that Kimbrel deserves to be on that kind of trajectory… and that’s he’s likely better than all of those other guys.

So far.

Of the names appearing on the right side of that graphic, let’s look at their sustained performance periods as closers:

  • Mariano Rivera – 16 of 17 seasons with 28+ saves (HOF-caliber)
  • Jonathan Papelbon – 8 years, 29+ saves (peaked at 41)
  • Francisco Rodriguez – 5 years, 35+ saves (peaked at 62).  Injured; trying to come back.
  • Francisco Cordero – 5 years of 34+ saves, 2 others with 37, 49
  • Brad Lidge – 2 years 30+ saves; hurt; 2 more years 30+; hurt.
  • Joe Nathan – 6 years of 36+ saves; 2 injury years, 2 more 37+ saves
  • Eric Gagne – 3 years in a row of 45+ saves
  • Trevor Hoffman – 14 of 15 years straight with 30 or more saves (HOF-caliber)
  • Heath Bell – 3 years, 42+ saves.  2 down years thereafter
  • Bobby Jenks – 2 years w/40+ saves, then 30, 29, 27, 0
  • Ryan Madson – 1 year, 32 saves.  Injured.
  • Rafael Soriano – 3 years of 45+ saves so far; one year setting up Rivera.
  • Billy Wagner – 9 years with 30+ saves; 3 gaps over career.  No run of 4 years.

Of these premium closers (plus Madson), only about half have been able to sustain performance beyond 5 years.  Cordero is an exception in that he did it in two portions of his career.  Rivera and Hoffman are extreme exceptions by going beyond 10 sustained years.  Papelbon may join that group, but it’s also pretty clear that his teams (Boston, Philadelphia) have not been entirely satisfied with even his performance levels (or maybe it was just him):  the Red Sox allowed him to leave as a free agent and the Phillies now want to trade him.  Soriano may also join the group.

Craig Kimbrel is now on a streak of 3 years with at least 42 saves in each one.  If he gets through 2014 and maintains that streak, he’ll be in that upper-half group of premium closers with premium track records.  But again:  it seems to be a 50-50 proposition for closer longevity.  Certainly Braves’ fans have experienced this over the years with numerous closers that have either flamed out, been injured, or otherwise developed control troubles.

The point?  Closers are risky.  And high dollars only add to that risk.


Overplaying the Hand?

I believe it’s clear that the Braves will not be able to keep up with Kimbrel’s salary trajectory beyond 2014 – win or lose.  I expect they will seek to trade him after this coming season.

That established:  how much can they get back for him?  The answer, I believe depends partly on whether they win this arbitration case.

If they win:  2015 salary close to $10 million; 2016 close to $13 million
If they lose:  2015 salary close to $13.5 million; 2016 close to $18 million.  Big difference.

Note that even for an established premium closer, the Phillies are having no luck at all in trying to trade Papelbon and his $13 million salary.  Now they may be trying to play hardball (in ‘trying’ to move Cliff Lee, their price was said to be his entire contract plus at least 2 top prospects).  So you can’t always tell with Reuben Amaro, but all indications have been that they want to dump his salary.

Given Kimbrel’s record thus far, the Braves should be able to find a top prospect in return for Kimbrel if they win next week.  If not, I have to believe that the return on their investment declines considerably as his future team’s risk jumps up.  He does have two years of control remaining, and he IS the best in baseball, so it might not be an entirely horrible scenario for Atlanta, but I would expect some teams to opt out of the bidding as the contract price climbs.

On the other hand, there’s Kimbrel himself.  If he wins next week, then he could be surprised in a couple of years.  Yes, the short-term payday will likely be there – from somebody.  But a long-term deal?  Not at that price point.  By the end of 2016, he’ll likely get the perfunctory Qualifying Offer – attaching the Scarlet Letter “D” (“Draft Pick Required”) to his jersey and forced to shop for something less than the graphic above might otherwise suggest.

Closers are already risky.  Expensive closers are really risky.  Really expensive closers that cost you a draft pick are unprecedented.  Kimbrel might end up wishing he loses next week.  That $9m request could end up setting things in motion that actually hurt him in the future.

Be careful what you ask for:  you might get it.

Tags: Arbitration Atlanta Braves Craig Kimbrel

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