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The Rays case for Craig Kimbrel

“There is no $15 million closer walking through these doors.”

MLB: World Series-Boston Red Sox at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this offseason, Tampa Bay principal owner Stu Sternberg quipped that there would be no $15 million closer coming through the doors of the Rays clubhouse.

Normally you could believe such a statement, but Sternberg also once said there wasn’t going to be a $7 million closer walking through those doors, days before the Rays traded for Rafael Soriano from the Atlanta Braves. So as long as Craig Kimbrel is available on the free agent market it’s only natural to wonder if history could be repeating.

Combine that lingering thought with what Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times sent out in the following tweet:

And then followed it up today with this:

Put “unlikely” aside.

Situations change, and it would be illogical to think that at some price point the Rays wouldn’t have interest in a reliever who has been among the most dominant over the last decade.

Let’s break it all down.

What kind of deal can Kimbrel get?

Craig Kimbrel is still a very good reliever, but over three of the last four years he has been merely very good instead of in the conversation for best in baseball. His 2017 season was his best since his days with Atlanta striking out 49.6% of batters faced. He still has glimpses of that in him even if they don’t come around as often as they did when he was younger.

Entering the offseason Kimbrel was looking to best the top reliever compensation mark set by Aroldis Chapm at 5 years, $86 million with the New York Yankees. Kimbrel was looking for six years and $100 million.

That offer wasn’t out there and his price has surely fallen some as we’re less than three weeks from the regular season.

It’s hard to imagine a deal in the ballpark that Wade Davis signed last year with the Colorado Rockies of 3/$51 million wouldn’t be out there if Kimbrel were willing to take a shorter deal. Some bidding could also get that something in the 4/$60 million range. That $15 million price tag simply shouldn’t be surprising, or even more on a one-year deal.

What would make sense for the Rays?

The question becomes at what point are the Rays really interested.

First, the Rays have to be comfortable giving up a draft pick. As a revenue sharing recipient the Rays would have to give up their third highest pick in the draft because Kimbrel declined a qualifying offer from the Boston Red Sox.

This year, the Rays third pick is the 39th pick in the draft that they received as part of the Brock Burke trade with the Texas Rangers and Oakland Athletics. The Rays first pick is number 22 and their competitive balance pick is number 36.

The only teams that would have to give up a higher draft pick to sign Kimbrel would be the New York Yankees at number 37 (2nd pick is the number 37 pick they received from the Cincinatti Reds in the Sonny Gray trade) and the Arizona Diamondbacks at number 34 (their third pick after receiving compensation picks for Patrick Corbin and AJ Pollock).

The majority of teams would be giving up a pick in the 50-70 range to sign a player who declined a qualifying offer.

For players in this range you’ll likely be able to get a 45 FV by FanGraphs valuation methodology, which are worth $4-6 million according to the study by Craig Edwards at FanGraphs.

The Rays are protective of their draft picks, so there’s some discount hat will be required, but even then the combination of cash and years might be the bigger hurdle.

MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Kimbrel’s Path to the Rays

If the Rays are working within their standard payroll range they can definitely afford Kimbrel for 2019. He would improve the team and with the team currently sitting on a $56 million payroll even adding Kimbrel at $20 million would put the Rays right at the top of their opening day payrolls set in 2014 and 2017 of just over $76 million.

That’s affordable for a “90-win team,” let alone one adding the best closer in baseball.

The question for the Rays, though, is not whether they can afford the closer in 2019. It’s down the line when they have to make choices.

Next year Blake Snell becomes arbitration eligible for the first time and that’s going to be a hefty raise even if he falls back to earth a bit from his 2018 Cy Young Award campaign. Tommy Pham and Mike Zunino will also be in line for raises, and they too are already star players. From there, the young core surrounding those names only get more expensive.

So while the team is very inexpensive in it’s present state, it gets pricey quickly as guys start to head through the arbitration process.

With these future obligations in mind, it’s difficult to see the Rays committing dollars to a closer in future years.

In a shorter term deal the draft pick becomes a much bigger hurdle. If Kimbrel does have to settle for a one year deal I hope it’s with the Rays for something in the $15-20 million range, but there should be a lot of interest if his market gets to that point.

If a second year is required, the Rays can consider it, but the team has never been one to offer trade clauses or opt outs. It’s their way or the highway.

If he gets a three-to-five year deal, I don’t expect it to be with the Rays even if it’s for less per year than he initial expected.

That narrows the Rays focus to a one-year deal, where Kimbrel can re-establish what should have been a strong market for his services, and allows him to give free agency a go next year after rocking the AL East again with a playoff contender.

Kimbrel would make the 2019 Tampa Bay Rays better and potentially a rival worse (Boston’s bullpen is basically non-existent). I would love to see the move made, but in future years it’s tough to see how he makes the team better than spending the money on other options.

It’s really hard to be disappointed with a one year deal between the Rays and Kimbrel, no matter the cost in dollars, and until he signs elsewhere we should all hope to see Kimbrel called from the bullpen on Opening Day.