Craig Kimbrel and Risk Tolerance
- Each was, arguably, the top player at his position heading into the offseason.
- Despite this, both players generated far less market demand than anticipated, and took much longer than expected to sign.
- The Twins (reportedly) made legitimate efforts to sign both, but ultimately refused to meet their contractual length requirements. (Per reports, the Twins offered a five-year deal to Darvish but wouldn't go six, and offered a two-year deal to Kimbrel but wouldn't go three.) That's because...
- Both pitchers bet against themselves.
In trying to understand why it took Darvish and (especially) Kimbrel so long to sign, we can point to a number of factors. There's the market collusion angle. There's the likelihood that both players (and their agents) carried aggressive expectations and demands, from which they were resistant to backing down.
But there's also the fact that both players had clear red flags. I wrote about the ones attached to Darvish right after he signed:
The Cubs are now committed to the righty through 2023. He'll be 37 when the pact expires. Although $21 million in annual salary is lower than most expected but it still becomes a hindrance quickly if he underperforms or battles injury. And those are legitimate apprehensions since Darvish is arguably a bigger long-term health risk than many of his peers.
Darvish's huge pitch counts in Japan were a much-discussed topic when he initially came over to the States. As recently as last season, writers in Texas were noticing his workload – especially the heavy slider usage – and wondering if it was cause for concern.
He was healthy and throwing hard last summer, quieting any serious alarm sirens, but Darvish was pretty clearly wearing down by the time the World Series rolled around. And the fact remains: he hasn't reached 190 innings since 2013.
Kimbrel's own risk points have been discussed extensively here and elsewhere. His velocity was down last year. He pitched poorly in the second half and postseason as his control unraveled. Most of his peripherals, in general, were far from elite. He's a 31-year-old who has logged large, high-stress relief workloads every year — and remember, you're paying for his uncertain future, not his undeniably phenomenal past.
Collusion accusations aside, front offices are getting smarter and more data-driven across MLB. When I see a guy like Darvish signing late, for less than anyone expected, after receiving surprisingly little interest from the market at large, I'm not chalking that up entirely to nefarious motives. Let's face it: The majority was proved right in the case of Darvish, not to mention Twins-centric examples like Lance Lynn and Logan Morrison.
Kimbrel is an all-time great closer. Everyone recognizes this. The Twins are hardly the only contender with bullpen issues. Many of them are large-market clubs with far less financial restraint. How come none of these teams scooped up Kimbrel at any during his last seven months of availability — especially his former team the Red Sox, who saw all that greatness up-close and wouldn't have even had to forfeit a draft pick?
The Twins' leadership is at the head of baseball's evolution toward sophistication and analytical evaluation. Their shrewdness when it comes to managing risk has helped them avoid bad free agent deals that could hinder future flexibility. As much as some people want to say, "It's not your money, the Pohlads have endless cash" or "There's no salary cap in baseball," the reality is that committing millions of dollars into future seasons does have an impact, and will limit what the team is able to do going forward.
It's easy to say the Twins should've spent more heavily on the bullpen this offseason regardless of the money they'd already sunk into Addison Reed. But if that commitment wasn't already in place, the team would've been more likely to spend it on elsewhere for this year. At least, I believe so.
And speaking of Reed, he's a prime example of relief pitcher volatility. He went from durable top-tier bullpen arm to unusable in a flash. If you review all the highest-profile relief signings of the past few years, you'll find a lopsided miss-to-hit ratio. Kimbrel is a class above most others, but still, in a season where the Twins are getting premium performance from a minor-league signing (Ryne Harper) while cutting the cord on Reed and watching their lone FA reliever (Blake Parker) start to fizzle, how can you really knock them for eschewing the highest end of the veteran market?
Now, to be clear, I'm not saying the Twins don't need relief help. They do. I've never wavered from that stance. But from my view, they should be seeking to execute the same blueprint that landed Ryan Pressly in Houston last summer: trading mid-tier prospects for prime-aged relievers, ideally with an untapped strength, under multiple years of control. There should be no shortage of such opportunities in the coming weeks, and the Twins have no shortage of prospects do deal with.
Acquiring Kimbrel in the middle of the season was a rare opportunity, it's true. And the Twins evidently made an effort to capitalize on it. But their ability to dictate a risk tolerance threshold and stick to it has served them well in the past, and I believe it will again here.
- denarded, birdwatcher, Riverbrian and 20 others like this