The Atlanta Braves have come to terms with Craig Kimbrel, paying the hard-throwing pitcher $42 million over the next four seasons to ensure his services will remain their exclusive property. As Kimbrel has made a name for himself early in his career by striking out an astonishing number of hitters, it seems only fair that the Braves would reward him for doing so by helping him strike it rich himself.
A third round selection in the 2008 amateur draft, Kimbrel,still just 25, has quickly turned into one of the game’s very best closers. Over his first 227 innings across four seasons in the Majors, Kimbrel has pitched to the tune of a microscopic 1.39 ERA. He has already racked up 139 career saves, putting him in a position to possibly make a run at Mariano Rivera’s all-time saves record if his run of dominance continues throughout the next decade or so.
With numbers like those, Kimbrel striking it rich was inevitable at some point in the future regardless, so this is a case of the Braves choosing to lock their shut-down closer up now instead of waiting until he gets closer to free agency. Although Atlanta could have chosen to take it year-by-year or even let the arbitration panel determine a salary for their star reliever, the franchise elected to guarantee a large sum of money now in exchange for at least one of the pitcher’s free agent years–possibly two years if the 2018 club option for an additional $13 million is picked up.
Last season, Kimbrel set a personal single-season best by recording 50 saves, blowing only four opportunities in the process. The 2011 Rookie of the Year award winner has finished first or tied for first among National League pitchers in the saves department for three years in a row, cementing his place as perhaps the best closer in baseball. With youth still on his side, Kimbrel figures to have several prime seasons left in him, and that works out very well for the Braves. Barring a serious injury or some other unexpected obstacle, Atlanta will not have to worry about the back end of their bullpen for a long time.
While Kimbrel’s talent is not questionable, the early feedback on the signing has been mixed. If any relief pitcher figures to earn the kind of money the Braves have guaranteed him over the next four years, Kimbrel is as good of a bet as anyone, but the fact remains he is still just a relief pitcher. He has never shouldered more than 77 innings in any of his big league seasons, and while he will certainly get plenty of future use, it seems unlikely that number of innings will be going up much. As someone who throws less than half the innings each season a team would expect to get out of a starter, $42 million is a lot to guarantee.
Even so, this is not the first time a team has invested a great deal of money into a closer, and because of Kimbrel’s ability and age, it is very possible he can fulfill his part of the contract if not provide a little bit of surplus value to boot. As with all long-term deals, there is some risk involved here for the Braves, and if Kimbrel should manage to get even better, he may have cost himself some money in the long run. For today, all that matters is that Kimbrel has struck it rich, and chances are good that the ninth inning will be a low-stress affair for Braves fans the next several seasons.
By Spencer Hendricks