Identifying the 5 Best Trade Landing Spots for Cubs Closer Craig Kimbrel
As the July 30 trade deadline approaches, there might not be a shinier trade chip in all of Major League Baseball than Chicago Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel.
Though he only checks in at No. 10 on B/R's big board of 2021 trade candidates, ESPN's Buster Olney tweeted that Kimbrel will be the "most coveted player" on the market for rival front offices ahead of the deadline.
Plenty of teams need bullpen help, after all, and Kimbrel is arguably having a better season than any other reliever. The eight-time All-Star has appeared in 35 games and racked up a 0.53 ERA with 58 strikeouts and only 11 hits and 11 walks allowed over 33.2 innings.
So without further hesitation, let's get into the 33-year-old's potential trade value and then look at five teams where he would fit best.
What Is Kimbrel's Trade Value?
Kimbrel is in the middle of a season that's not only good, but historically good. To wit, his 0.53 ERA has him on track to break Zack Britton's record for a reliever who made at least 50 appearances in a season.
It also shouldn't be overlooked that Kimbrel has been completely unbothered by MLB's crackdown on foreign substances. The sticky stuff ban went into effect on June 21, yet all he's done since then is rack up five straight scoreless appearances marked by nine strikeouts, one hit and two walks.
Kimbrel is pulling in a $16 million salary, with a $1 million buyout on a $16 million option for 2022 that will vest or revert to a team option if it doesn't. He's hypothetically controllable beyond 2021 either way, so MLB Network's Jon Heyman was probably right when he ventured that the Cubs will get "a ton" for Kimbrel.
The best-case scenario would be a haul akin to the one they paid for Aroldis Chapman in 2016, in which they gave up a package headlined by a young Gleyber Torres, who was MLB.com's No. 24 prospect at the time. Even if that doesn't come to fruition, Kimbrel is surely worth at least one blue-chip talent.
If it's ultimately a question of which contenders need Kimbrel the most and also have the capital to pay for him, we like the following five teams.
5. Philadelphia Phillies
Now the Philadelphia Phillies' president of baseball operations, Dombrowski finds himself tasked with bolstering a contention run that's being held back by a leaky bullpen. Though the Phillies are second in the National League East at 47-45, their bullpen has a 4.62 ERA and is in the red for win probability added.
Even if adding him wouldn't solve everything, going back to the Kimbrel well is the best possible move that Dombrowski can make. He would not only solidify the ninth inning but also form a potentially deadly relief duo with underrated left-hander Ranger Suarez.
One catch, however, is that Dombrowski is actually comfortable with Suarez in the closer's role. Another is that the Phillies have precious few prospects with which to entice the Cubs, and maybe none at all if their two Tier 1 talents—right-hander Mick Abel and shortstop Bryson Stott—are off the table.
4. Oakland Athletics
Though they're not the only contender in the American League West that's beset by an iffy bullpen, the Oakland Athletics nonetheless do have a real need for a relief ace.
To his credit, right-hander Lou Trivino has been getting things done with a 1.96 ERA as Oakland's primary closer. But he's also whiffed only 41 batters in 46 innings, which makes him part of the problem for an A's pen that boasts MLB's lowest rate of strikeouts per nine innings.
Since Kimbrel has the highest strikeouts-per-nine rate of any qualified reliever this season, he would move that particular needle more than anyone else the A's might acquire. So, why not go get him?
Well, for one thing, the A's might be reluctant to add Kimbrel's salary to what's currently the seventh-lowest payroll in baseball. And since catcher Tyler Soderstrom is their one and only Tier 1 prospect at the moment, Kimbrel's acquisition cost could be still another barrier in the way of a deal.
3. San Francisco Giants
What the Giants don't really have, however, is a true closer. Though left-hander Jake McGee (19 saves) and right-hander Tyler Rogers (10 saves) have mostly done well in splitting closing duties, each of them is better suited to more of a matchup-based role.
For his part, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi has said that he wants "to be careful" with regard to any moves that might impact the club's long-term plans. Which is basically another way of saying, "We don't want to trade our top prospects."
But with baseball's best record in hand and several key players—including All-Stars Kevin Gausman and Brandon Crawford—due for free agency, the Giants have incentive to go for broke. If they do decide to go that route, shortstop Marco Luciano headlines a group of four Tier 1 talents that they have to barter with.
2. Toronto Blue Jays
Like the Giants, the Toronto Blue Jays' bullpen actually looks decent based on its numbers. It boasts a 4.06 ERA and has only melted down 47 times all season.
But even in spite of those numbers, the Blue Jays have had a Kirby Yates-sized hole in the back end of their pen ever since he underwent Tommy John surgery in March. Jordan Romano has been a revelation in his stead, but the Jays have otherwise been scrambling for reliable relievers all season.
Considering just those factors, the Blue Jays are a like-a-glove fit for Kimbrel. And since ascendant infielder/outfielder Austin Martin is but one of five Tier 1 prospects in their third-ranked farm system, they'll surely have the Cubs' attention if they call about Kimbrel.
Rather, the issue here may be one of timing. The Blue Jays are seven games out of first in the AL East and thus merely a wild-card contender for now. So even if general manager Ross Atkins is indeed focused on bullpen additions, he might not deem it wise to make a splash on a short-term veteran like Kimbrel.
1. Houston Astros
The Houston Astros haven't had many problems this season whenever Ryan Pressly has taken the mound. In 37 appearances, the All-Star has put up a 1.38 ERA with 43 more strikeouts than walks in 39 innings.
But even though Pressly has been a rock, Houston's bullpen as a whole has hardly been on a roll. In spite of its non-terrible 4.13 ERA, it's in the red for both wins above replacement and win probability added.
Regarding a possible play for Kimbrel, two things are working against the Astros. For one, their payroll is already up against the $210 million luxury-tax threshold. For two, they'll surely be loath to part with catcher Korey Lee since he's the one and only Tier 1 talent in their farm system.
But for what it's worth, Astros GM James Click has indicated that he doesn't have a mandate to stay under the luxury tax. And even more so than the other four teams on this list, the Astros are absolutely a win-now contender whose season will be considered a bust if it doesn't conclude with them in the World Series.