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Craig Kimbrel Is Rare Elite Closer Deserving of New Big-Money Deal

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Craig Kimbrel Is Rare Elite Closer Deserving of New Big-Money Deal
USA Today

Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel has continued his climb to the top of baseball's record books. This time, though, his latest achievement is measured in dollars, not strikeout percentage.

According to Mark Bowman of MLB.com, the 25-year-old closer has avoided arbitration with Atlanta by agreeing to a long-term contract extension. The details—a four-year, $42 million deal with a maximum value of $58 million over five years—break the mold for modern-day relief pitching contracts.

Of course, Kimbrel has already broken the mold for relief pitching with his performance on the mound. 

If this deal, afforded to a pitcher in the volatile role of closer, seems crazy, think again. Not only is Kimbrel worth the money, he might be the only closer in baseball who has the ability to make a long-term pact look like a bargain.

To be fair, long-term deals for relief pitchers are usually a really poor way to allocate funds. The nine-highest-paid relievers, measured by average annual salary, form a cast of characters who largely disappointed the teams signing their respective checks.

The famously rich relievers, per Cot's Baseball Contracts, are Mariano Rivera, Brad Lidge, Joe Nathan, Rafael Soriano, Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, Billy Wagner, Kerry Wood and Francisco Cordero. Each was paid due to overwhelming success and talent, similar to Kimbrel.

Outside of Rivera, few provided true bang for the buck. If Kimbrel breaks down, loses effectiveness or fails in major moments, his name could be included on a list like this when the next great closer signs an even bigger pact.

But for now, Kimbrel stands as an outlier among relief pitchers in the history of the sport. Through his age-25 season there has not been a relief pitcher who comes close to the production Atlanta has seen from its man in his short career.

Braves general manager Frank Wren understood that distinction, referencing Kimbrel as the best in the game after the news broke, per Mark Bowman of MLB.com.

"When you have the best closer in the game, you're always hopeful you can work something out," Wren said. "We had an arbitration hearing set for tomorrow. Fortunately, over the last week we have been able to have negotiations that allowed us to reach an agreement. We are thrilled Craig is going to be here for at least the next four years, and we're pretty confident it is going to be the next five years."

The following chart shows where Kimbrel ranks among all relief pitchers in baseball history. Yes, new-school fans can point out that the modern usage of relievers, specifically one-inning closers, is relatively new, but that's not the point. 

Craig Kimbrel RP Ranks Through Age-25 Season
Stat Kimbrel All-Time Rank
ERA 1.39 1
ERA+ 282 1
Saves 139 2
SO/9 15.08 1
SO/BB 4.65 1

Baseball-Reference

Among his peers of today and relievers of the early days of specialized bullpens, Kimbrel stands alone.

Furthermore, Kimbrel's first three years as a full-time closer (2011-13) are superior to the first three years of Mariano Rivera's run as closer (1997-99) with the New York Yankees.

Considering that he is four years younger (25 versus 29) than Rivera was in 1999, an objective view of the two closing greats could yield this thought: Atlanta may have a young closer on a more amazing path than Mariano Rivera was on. 

Kimbrel vs. Rivera (First Three Years as Closer)
Stat Kimbrel Rivera
IP 206.2 202
SO/9 14.9 7.0
SO/BB 5.17 2.84
ERA 1.48 1.87
ERA+ 264 243
Saves 138 124

Baseball-Reference

Of course, much of Rivera's legacy and greatness stemmed from dominance in October. Kimbrel—with less than seven full innings of October baseball under his belt—needs more opportunities in the postseason to create his own legacy.

For their part, the Braves have spent $227 million this offseason to keep a winning core together in Atlanta, per Chris Cotillo of MLB Daily Dish. By awarding long-term deals to the quartet of Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta has altered its payroll approach.

Now the fun part begins.

If Kimbrel continues to pitch like he has over the last four seasons, this deal will be a boon for the Braves.

According to Fangraphs' value calculations, Kimbrel has been worth $42 million since debuting in 2010. Considering that he only pitched 20.2 innings that year, that figure is magnified. Over the last three seasons, in which he has averaged 69 innings pitched per year, the star closer has been worth $40 million.

According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, the first four years of Kimbrel's new deal could be worth up to $46 million if contract bonuses are achieved. If that extra cash is incumbent on NL Cy Young consideration, he will likely meet the threshold. 

Over the last three years, Kimbrel as garnered three consecutive finishes in the top 10 of the voting.  

Considering the new movement with forward-thinking, analytically inclined voters, that's no small feat for a closer. Innings and raw value are imperative to winning a Cy Young. As a closer, Kimbrel likely never will. Yet he's so dominant in his role that the discussion, and his place on the ballot, happens on a yearly basis.

If Kimbrel continues to pitch like he has, $46 million over four years won't just be fair, it will be a good deal for the Braves.

Yes, the possibility exists that his arm and brilliant fastball will disappear in an instant. If the legendary strikeout rate tumbles, effectiveness will follow. This deal, much like any long-term extension for a young pitcher, is a risk for the Atlanta Braves. 

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But it was one they were wise to take.

In the arbitration process, comparable players are used to determine salary. When Kimbrel's process was still up for discussion, a problem emerged for the team, player and agent: There is no one comparable to him. 

Luckily for Braves fans, general manager Frank Wren and team ownership used that knowledge to re-sign a special talent.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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