These sure aren’t the Braves of old anymore.
An organization known for its frugality, Atlanta has veered onto a new, more expensive path this winter by doling out upwards of $170 million to Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran and now Craig Kimbrel.
To provide some perspective: the new stadium in Cobb County is expected to cost roughly $672 million to build. GM Frank Wren has committed roughly the equivalent of one-quarter of that budget to four guys.
Maybe the Braves’ new jerseys should have pinstripes.
"I can see what we’re doing as an organization and ballclub," Kimbrel told MLB.com after inking a four-year, $42 million contract. "We’re going out to win. As of right now, we’re planning on winning for a long time."
Of the quartet locked up, it’s most surprising to see Kimbrel willing to make a long-term commitment to this team. Knowing how much he was expected to command in arbitration in 2015 and 2016, many expected the Braves to trade the dominant closer before he became unaffordable.
And with shortstop Andrelton Simmons and pitchers Mike Minor and Kris Medlen due to receive raises in the near future, it was difficult to picture a way to keep Kimbrel on board under Liberty Media’s budget. After all, even though Kimbrel’s production has been historic, it’s a lot easier to replace a closer than, say, a world-class shortstop or front-of-the-rotation starter.
But this deal got done thanks to Kimbrel’s willingness to accept less than his true value. Unquestionably, he left a lot of potential cash on the table.
Kimbrel will make $7 million this year, a drop from the $9 million his agent submitted for arbitration; the Braves offered just $6.55 million. There’s good reason to believe the arbitrator scheduled to oversee the case would have sided with the closer — and Wren knew that.
Kimbrel will then make $9 million in 2015, which is significantly less than he would have secured in that round of arbitration, assuming he continues to pitch at an elite level. Jonathan Papelbon’s $12 million arbitration settlement with the Red Sox in 2011 was the most given to any non-free agent reliever in MLB history, and Kimbrel could have easily surpassed that number in 2015.
In total, Kimbrel is guaranteed an annual average salary of $10.5 million through the next four seasons; that figure can jump to $11.7 million over five years through incentives and an option for the 2018 campaign. He’ll be either 29 or 30 years old when this agreement expires, depending on whether or not he stays for that fifth year.
An incentive-laden pact like this one takes away some of the risk for Atlanta, which had to be necessary to get it done in the first place.
"I think we had to be creative and as we put the deal together," Wren said. "There was a lot of creativity at the end to try to bridge the gap of being fair to both sides. To his credit, he was willing to bridge it in a creative way. If he continues to perform at this level, he’s going to get more. If he’s just great or just good, then it’s another number. I think it’s a fair concept for both of us."
Indeed, this contract makes a lot of sense for the Braves, but what about Kimbrel himself? Why didn’t he take more money in arbitration and sign for a lot more when he was eligible for free agency? The answer is two-fold: he wants to play for a winning franchise, and he wants financial security — the latter being crucial.
Closers tend to have short shelf lives, especially flamethrowers such as Kimbrel. The longest tenured closers in history — Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, Trevor Hoffman, to name a few — didn’t have overpowering stuff. Their arms were able to hold up into their late 30s. Billy Wagner was an exception, but he endured his fair share of ailments over the course of his career, including a torn UCL in 2008 that required Tommy John surgery.
Kimbrel knows the hazards involved with his job. No matter how well he takes care of himself, he’s always one pitch away from calamity. All pitchers are, really, but those with 100 MPH fastballs are particularly susceptible to devastating injuries.
As good as Kimbrel is, he hasn’t made much money yet in his career. If he continued to earn his salary year-to-year and blew out his arm before cashing in, he’d have little financial security to lean on.
Sure, his $655,000 income from 2013 isn’t chump change in the grand scheme of things, but it’s certainly not enough to live on.
Now, the best closer in baseball is being paid a respectable amount relative to the market. He can breathe easy, and so can the Braves. Just like the contracts Heyward, Freeman and Teheran signed, this one is a win all around.
And that gives both sides a tremendous chance to reach their mutual goal.
"This is where I want to be," Kimbrel added. "I want to be closing out division titles and championships and World Series. We’ve got the team to do it and I’m very excited."