Time was when a decorated, frontline closer like Craig Kimbrel would have long ago been snatched up from the market. This, however, is the winter of 2018-19, and for a variety of reasons the free agent market isn't what it used to be. In Kimbrel's case, he's perhaps the most acute example of the fact that teams these days care about past performance only to the extent it forms future expectations.
Kimbrel, of course, enjoyed a legendary peak with the Braves. When he was traded to the Padres following the 2014 season, Kimbrel at the time boasted an absurd 1.43 career ERA with an even more absurd 476 strikeouts in 289 innings. Those lofty heights are almost certainly gone forevermore, but in 2017 with the Red Sox Kimbrel proved still capable of elite-level run prevention. Then came a far more mortal 2018 for the champion Sox ...
To be sure, those bestowals are the envy of many a reliever, but that's not Maximum Kimbrel. In 62 1/3 innings, Kimbrel walked 31 batters, none of them intentional. He also allowed home runs and extra-base hits at career-worst rates. Much of Kimbrel's difficulties flowed from declining fastball velocity.
Kimbrel can still breathe fire, yes, but his average four-seamer velocity of 97.6 mph was his lowest mark since 2011. Probably as a result of his losing a tick or two, Kimbrel leaned on his breaking ball last season more than ever before. As a partial consequence of throwing that curve more than one-third of the time, Kimbrel worked in the zone less than ever before. On top of all that, Kimbrel's ground-ball percentage was well below his career norms.
Now let's turn to FIP. In general terms, FIP, which stands for fielding-independent pitching, is what a pitcher's ERA should be if you emphasize what's most under the pitcher's control (i.e., strikeouts and walks) and correct for things like luck, defense and sequencing. It's a good indicator of a pitcher's underlying basic skills on the mound. Last season, Kimbrel authored an FIP of 3.13. While that's not bad in a vacuum, it's the worst mark of Kimbrel's career. Also, compare it to Kimbrel's pre-2018 career FIP of 1.80. That's indicative of a skills decline.
That's not all that surprising for a closer who's now on the wrong side of age 30 and who's already finished 449 games in his career. Count the postseason, and Kimbrel's thrown more than 9,000 pitches in his major-league career, many of them no doubt high-leverage and high-stress pitches. Now put all that knowledge against Kimbrel's reported ask of six years and nine figures earlier this offseason. Sure, that's just an initial bargaining point, but no team is going to give that to a closer in his thirties with underlying signs of degradation.
This, obviously, isn't to say Kimbrel is of no use. He still misses bats, and most projection systems tab him for an ERA in the high 2.00s to low 3.00s. That's not elite, but it's still good. Accept that he's probably going to decline further from here and focus on getting that worth from him at the front end of whatever contract he signs.
Really, this isn't about the money -- any team can afford any free agent, provided there's anything resembling organizational will. This is about the possible notion that Kimbrel can still be a lockdown closer. He probably can't be that. Good, he can be with an understanding that at this stage of his career he probably gets a little less good each day.