The very thought of trading Craig Kimbrel can't help but rile up Atlanta Braves fans.
Although it's not necessarily even an actual rumor, the concept of trading baseball's best closer—as suggested recently by Buster Olney of ESPN (subscription required) merely as speculation—is just the kind of proposition that is, in a word, divisive.
The Tampa Bay Rays have been collecting information this week in their trade conversations about starter David Price, because eventually they will have to trade him. They drafted Price, they developed Price, they love Price, and he is a team leader, but they will move him because of a simple math equation: He will soon make too much money for them to afford.
If they trade him this offseason, they will get strong value in return. If they wait, their trade return -- as well as their payroll flexibility in 2014 -- will be diminished, because Price is moving closer to the time he can become a free agent, after the 2015 season.
The Atlanta Braves should be taking notes on all this, because they have a player who fits this description and these circumstances. Someone they drafted and developed, someone they love, a team leader -- and someone who is soon going to be too expensive for their relatively modest payroll: Craig Kimbrel, the best closer on the planet.
They should be looking to trade him, and right now might be the best possible time.
So take a borderline unhittable 25-year-old closer with a whopping 138 saves the past three seasons and an ERA of 1.39, a WHIP of 0.90 and a strikeout rate of 15.1 for his career...and make him available?
To be clear, this is simply a possible scenario that the Braves could—and maybe, just maybe, should—consider. For a few reasons.
Take, for example, Kimbrel's salary, which is about to skyrocket from $655,000 in 2013 to a projection somewhere in the range of $7-$8 million for 2014—that's a tenfold increase—now that he's eligible for his first go at arbitration.
(That projection, by the way, comes from Matt Swartz at MLB Trade Rumors, who essentially admitted that Kimbrel's performance and statistics over the first three full years of his career more or less broke the model for calculating his salary. In Swartz's own words: "It is our suspicion that he will land much closer to the $7.25MM we have projected for him than the high number the model produced, which I might as well confess was actually $10.2MM.")
Consider also that Kimbrel's salary will only escalate from there until he hits free agency after the 2016 season, and the Braves—who have maintained a payroll in the $90 million range the past five years—aren't exactly the kind of franchise that can easily afford to spend $12-15 million a year on a closer. Not when they have a handful of other young stars, like Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Mike Minor, Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran, who also will need to be paid soon enough.
Essentially, the Braves "problem" here is that Kimbrel actually has been too good too soon, if that makes sense.
And then there's the basic fact that a reliever, even the best one in the entire sport like Kimbrel, just does not have a chance to make a dynamic overall impact on any one game when he throws 15-20 pitches at a time—let alone over a full season when he throws 70 innings a year.
Remember, it was a little more than two months ago that the Braves completed a season-long domination of the NL East by clinching the No. 2 spot in the National League playoffs. And remember, in their first-round series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, manager Fredi Gonzalez chose not to use Kimbrel in a key spot of Game 4—with the Braves up 3-2 but trailing two games to one—in part because it was only the bottom of the eighth inning. And you remember how that turned out, right?
With David Carpenter, a lesser arm, surrendering the series-winning home run to Juan Uribe before Kimbrel even got a chance to step on the mound. In all, Kimbrel made just one appearance in those four games, throwing only 25 pitches against all of five batters to register four outs.
For a team that hasn't won a single series in October since 2001, perhaps the idea of trading Kimbrel for players who can have a bigger impact isn't such a terrible idea.
On that topic, then, even though the Braves are a well-constructed team with an extremely productive and promising young core, they still have areas that could be upgraded or addressed, primarily second base, catcher, center field and the rotation. And since Atlanta already has right-hander Jordan Walden, who has closed in the past, he would be at least a serviceable replacement.
Finding potential trade partners isn't easy. The Braves, after all, are contenders, as are most clubs that might inquire about the luxury provided by a top-notch ninth-inning arm like Kimbrel. It's often a challenge to match up contender-contender trades, because both parties are playing for the immediate future rather than the long term.
That doesn't mean, though, there aren't possible fits out there. With that in mind, let's see if we can do the impossible and come up with a few landing spots and trade packages that actually might get the Braves—and their fans—to at least consider the concept of trading Kimbrel.