Braves closers who followed Craig Kimbrel

Kimbrel’s not coming. Should the Braves be ashamed? (No)

Craig Kimbrel has found a team, and it’s not the team Braves Country wanted him to find. Ergo, Braves Country is ticked. Alex Anthopoulos = do-nothing boob. Liberty Media = heartless, faceless, insensitive to fans. (That part is true.) The Braves = a corporate entity that cares nothing about winning. And here we say … 

Hold those horses. 

The Braves had reasons — you mightn’t want to hear this — to be leery of Kimbrel. If they hadn’t, they’d have signed him in February. They do have money available. They could have fit him, barely, within the do-not-cross payroll line dictated by heartless/faceless Liberty Media. But accommodating the prodigal pitcher would have compromised this season’s team in that Anthopoulos would have had almost nothing to spend to address needs that cropped up during the season. 

Here you’re saying: Had they signed Kimbrel, the bullpen wouldn’t have been as awful as it was in April and May, therefore obviating one need. There’s logic to that, yes. Who wouldn’t have preferred one Kimbrel to Jerry Blevins/Anthony Swarzak or further doses of Shane Carle/Dan Winkler? The counterargument is that Kimbrel is a ninth-inning guy and this bullpen’s issues were, and maybe still are, systemic. He’d have helped. He mightn’t have helped quite as much as everyone seems to believe. 

As to how much Kimbrel would have helped … that was a concern, too. It said something that the Red Sox, who have lots of money, didn’t feel compelled to keep the closer who’d helped them win a World Series, part of that having to do with their decision not to let Kimbrel close the World Series. (Chris Sale, a starter, worked the final inning of Game 6.) Kimbrel had a rough October. He’s 31. Was October a blip or a sign of impending decline? 

Wade Davis signed with Colorado for $52 million over three seasons — there’s an option for a fourth — in December 2017 after helping the Cubs win the 2016 World Series. He was 32. He led the league with 45 saves last year, but he did it with a 4.13 ERA and six blown saves. This year he tweaked an oblique and hasn’t pitched since May 14. Davis has been good for the Rockies, but the belief among analytic sorts, which every MLB club has, is that the difference between the best closer and the 10th-best isn’t all that wide. A team doesn’t have to pay $17 million a year to feel good about the ninth inning. 

More counterarguments: All the Braves had to do to get Kimbrel was pay him. He was a free agent. They wouldn’t have had to raid their farm system to make a deal. They’d have lost a draft pick had they bought him pre-June 3, but that penalty went away once the draft arrived. They needed bullpen help. He could have helped the bullpen. They just didn’t want to spend the money. 

Those are salient points. I went back and forth on the Kimbrel thing myself. First I thought they shouldn’t, then — once I saw the state of this bullpen — I thought maybe they should. This was an especially complicated case. The Braves could have found the money, but would that have been an optimum allocation of resources not just in 2019 but in 2021? This much I know: Anthopoulos didn’t want to go beyond two contractual years, and the reason Kimbrel remained unemployed was his refusal to accept anything less. 

Sure enough, he’s getting $43 million from the Cubs — $10 million to finish this season, $16 mil for 2020 and 2021, plus the option of a $1 million club buyout in 2022. That’s more money over more years than the Braves were willing to do, and I can’t blame them. Nobody knows how effective the 33-year-old Kimbrel will be, but we know he’ll be making $16 million. 

The Braves aren’t the Cubs. More to the point, Liberty Media isn’t the Ricketts family. The Cubs have a good TV contract. (Tribune Broadcasting still owns 5 percent of the club.) They sell out every game. They’ve been winning big since 2015. The Braves are upward bound, but they’re not there yet. Their TV contract is laughable. They must count every million. They were willing to pay $23 million for Josh Donaldson, but that was a one-shot deal, and in the wake of Austin Riley’s arrival we can argue the $23 mil might have been better spent elsewhere. 

That’s the Braves’ world, and it’s not new. It’s something every general manager has had to face since Liberty Media bought the club in 2007. (Which, incidentally, was John Schuerholz’s last year as GM. The Hall of Famer knew when to leave.) Revenues keep going up — that’s the SunTrust Park effect — but that doesn’t mean LM is saying, “You guys are doing great, so just spend whatever you want.” That hasn’t happened. That will never happen. 

Do I wish somebody/something other than Liberty Media owns this club? Yes. (To this day, I’ve never met a Liberty Media exec.) But this is reality, and if nothing else we can say that this absentee owner does, apart from controlling the budget, stay absent. The Great Reset was OK with the corporate office. Frank Wren was able to trade for Justin Upton and buy Melvin (nee B.J.) Upton. In one offseason, Wren added starting pitchers Javier Vazquez, Derek Lowe and, ahem, Kenshin Kawakami. It’s not that the Braves can’t do anything. They just can’t do everything. 

In a perfect world, the Braves would have committed local ownership — it seems cliché to say someone like Arthur Blank, but yes, someone like Arthur Blank — but we in Atlanta have learned to be careful in our wishing. There was a local component to Atlanta Spirit LLC. How’d that work out? 

To suggest that Anthopoulos couldn’t care less about winning is simply wrong. The Braves aren’t the Thrashers. This is a high-profile club, not just in Atlanta but across the South. The Braves cared enough to undertake an excruciating rebuild, suffering those years of losing in the belief that a thriving farm system was the only way a club owned by Liberty Media could sustain winning. They were division champs last year. They might be again. They’ll have to do it without Kimbrel, but they did it last year without him. 

I understand the angst, but there’s a bigger picture here. Not signing a 31-year-old closer doesn’t mean the Braves aren’t trying. There were legitimate reasons — his age, his October, his insistence on three years — for them to balk. And now they, and he, and we move on.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.
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