Some seventeen months ago, Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg promised the media, “No fifteen-million-dollar closer is walking through that door.”
Ultimately, he was right, but not for lack of trying.
At the time, Sternberg was referring to the doors leading to the training fields at the Port Charlotte Spring Training complex, but as the off-season turned into the regular season and he remained unsigned, the Rays ultimately made multiple competitive offers, as reported by Ken Rosenthal:
The Rays, the team with the lowest payroll in the majors, were the runner-up for Kimbrel, giving him a choice of two proposals, according to major-league sources. One of their offers was for two years, $31 million with a club option, while the other was for three years, $39 million, sources said.
The Cubs won Kimbrel over with a three-year, $43 million deal that after taxes is likely less money for the reliever in the long run.
But by spurning the offer from the Rays, Tampa Bay in turn dodged a bullet.
First is the element of the possible draft pick penalty, which would have required the Rays to lose the upcoming 40th overall selection in RHP Seth Johnson, who ranks 17th on our annual prospect list, if the Rays had successfully landed Kimbrel prior to when the Cubs signed him. Second is that, since signing, Craig Kimbrel has been horrible.
During his time on the North Side of Chicago, Kimbrel has been — without hyperbole — among the worst pitchers in all of baseball. Signing late into the season in 2019, Kimbrel made just 23 appearances for the Cubbies. Over those 23 outings, Kimbrel retired all batters faced just six times. He gave up a total of 9 homeruns over 20 2⁄3 innings pitched, compared to the 7 homeruns he gave up over 62 1⁄3 innings pitched with Boston in 2018.
Kimbrel finished the year 0-4 with 13 saves, a 6.53 ERA in 23 games, and one trip to the injured list for a knee issue. And if you think that was bad, the results have gotten worse.
Thus far in 2020, Kimbrel has made just two appearances for Chicago and the former fiercest closer in baseball has failed to register a single strikeout, with literally no swings at his breaking ball. He has faced 11 hitters and has thrown 46 pitches; the results have been two home runs, four walks, zero strikeouts, and literally just one swinging strike. The exit velocities of the balls in play that Kimbrel managed to record outs on, are as follows: 102.4, 104.9, 104.7, and 74.7.
Had Kimbrel elected to sign with Tampa Bay rather than Chicago and results remained the same (which is a significant if, given the Rays success with finding ways to improve pitchers), it would have been the costliest mistake in franchise history.
In short, Craig Kimbrel could have received the largest free agent contract the Rays had ever given out and the results would have been devastating. May this serve as a reminder, forever and always: When it comes to the bullpen, never go full Rockies.