Offseason Decision: Kimbrel's Option

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With their postseason run euthanized far too quickly, the White Sox are already forced to look to 2022, with several crucial decisions to make in that time. Over the course of the next two weeks, I hope to examine what I see as fundamentally critical choices facing Rick Hahn this offseason, and I will tackle arguably the biggest one first: Should the White Sox pick up Craig Kimbrel’s option?

© Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Answer: No.

There, I saved you a lot of time by being nice and direct with it. Enjoy the rest of the site.

For those of you who demand further analysis, allow me to explain.

The biggest elephant in the room is, of course, Kimbrel’s massive salary: $16 million for a reliever is a LOT of money, especially on a roster that’s already carrying one pretty expensive closer in Liam Hendriks. While I’m all for investing in an elite bullpen, this is hardly a good way for a team that adheres to self-imposed salary restrictions to use its limited resources. It’s one thing if the team spent toward the top of the league, which would allow them to absorb the risk of Kimbrel’s salary and still sign other top players. But when your owner keeps you hovering around the league median, it can be crippling, especially when the price of retaining your core keeps escalating.

Total salaries of Tim Anderson, Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert, Lucas Giolito, Aaron Bummer, and Yoán Moncada:

2021: $28.03 million

2022: $47.63 million (assuming $8.5 million for Giolito in arbitration)

That’s nearly $20 million added onto the payroll for 2022 without adding a single player. Let’s face it, $16 million for Kimbrel probably matters.

Then there’s the other, only slightly smaller elephant in the room: Kimbrel’s performance. Before the 2021 trade deadline, Kimbrel put together one of the best three month stretches of his storied career. He was striking out hitters at a massive rate, and his walk rate (which had spiked horribly the preceding seasons) was back under control. Nobody was barreling him up; it was a remarkable stretch.

But after the trade to the South Side, something changed. The strikeouts were still there, and the walk rate didn’t rise all that much, but hitters barreled him up at a far greater rate. His home run rate went from virtually nonexistent to one of the worst in the league. Kimbrel wasn’t giving up a ton of hits, but what he did give up was highly damaging. The White Sox never knew one day to the next whether he’d blow away the opposing team in order or start giving up taters like he owned land in Idaho.

There are two scenarios for picking up Kimbrel’s option, neither of which I find appealing. Let’s examine both.

1. Pick up Kimbrel’s option and look for him to rebound.

As discussed previously, Kimbrel’s three-month stretch this season with the Cubs was the stuff of legend. If you believe that version of Kimbrel can come back, then sure, that’s worth throwing $16 million at. The problem is, recent history suggests that is very much the exception for Kimbrel, and not the norm.

Upon signing with the Cubs in June 2019 after holding out for a big contract in an unusually cold Hot Stove offseason, Kimbrel promptly turned in a disastrous campaign. In 23 relief appearances, totaling 20 23 innings, Kimbrel allowed a 1.019 OPS. Basically, opposing lineups turned into Bryce Harper, en masse. Kimbrel was a half win below replacement level by most standards, even in that limited sample.

The 2020 season did not bring about much in the way of a rebound. While he was definitely better, but in the course of that shortened season his walk rate spiked to absurd levels. So despite allowing relatively few hits, opposing lineups put together a .348 OBP against Kimbrel due to 12 free passes allowed in his first eight innings pitched. To his credit, Kimbrel did finish the season on a dominant run, allowing no runs or walks in his final eight appearances.

That was the form he showed to open 2021, and what the White Sox were expecting when they acquired him. Sadly, they got something more akin to the troubled veteran who first arrived with the Cubs for two abbreviated campaigns. Spanning the last month of 2020 and his pre-deadline performance in 2021, Kimbrel put together 47 elite relief appearances. The problem is that the other 57 appearances were, at best, a mixed bag, and largely just plain bad.

Generously speaking, Kimbrel has been a very good pitcher roughly half the time over the last three seasons. But nobody pays a reliever $16 million to be good 50% of the time, and cough up games left and right the other half. Heck, nobody even retains a reliever that performs like that once he hits arbitration, usually. If the White Sox want to bolster their relief corps, there are FAR better bets for that sort of money.

2) Pick up Kimbrel’s option and trade him.

Every time I see this idea bandied about it elicits a chortle.

“Let’s trade this underwater contract on a shaky reliever for something we need!”

First, nobody wants to trade for Kimbrel next season. Second, even if they were kinda willing to do so, nobody is willing to trade something useful to pick up his contract. At best, they’re looking at trading one underwater contract for another, and while there are plenty of examples of trading dead money for dead money that turn out relatively well, I’m not aware of any that didn’t involve two teams who were backed into a corner with a contract — not one who invited such a scenario by picking up a contract option unnecessarily.

Simply put, there is no value in Kimbrel’s deal. If he were still a reliable reliever, he would still have dubious value just given the sheer amount of money owed to him. Look no further than David Robertson (who was a much more reliable reliever at the time), whose value did not rise past the Ian Clarkin/Tito Polo level when traded. And if Kimbrel is still considered a reliable reliever, given the serious issues in the White Sox bullpen in 2021, why would they consider trading him away?

The only way Kimbrel has any value in trade is if the White Sox kick in most of his salary and/or they throw in a prospect or other player of actual value. But again, why would the White Sox willingly invite either scenario? Anybody who is willing to trade a prospect would be doubly willing to do so without Kimbrel attached, and anything a team is willing to offer for Kimbrel at a reduced salary is probably not worth picking up the remainder.

The bottom line is that there is no scenario where picking up Kimbrel’s option is a worthwhile endeavor, short of him being some version of his early 2021 self — and that’s an awfully low-probability gamble with an awful lot of money on the line. The rest of the league saw what Kimbrel looked like with the White Sox, and nobody’s gonna bet $16 million that they’re going to get the pre-trade version.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow. The White Sox gave up significant pieces of their team for 2022 and beyond in order to acquire Kimbrel, and not only did he not deliver, he absolutely stunk. While nobody should consider it a bad trade in hindsight (the trade itself was sound), the results were absolutely bad, and picking up Kimbrel’s option is just doubling down on those results. Yes, the trade is a loss, but the likelihood of breaking even in the long run is not high enough to risk significant salary resources on.

Nobody should blame Hahn for the trade not working out. But if he picks up the option and is therefore forced to shop on the cheap for other very necessary pieces on the market, it will absolutely hamstring him, short of Jerry uncharacteristically offering him a blank check for 2022.

Consider their position: If the ONLY player who returns in arbitration is Lucas Giolito, they’re at roughly $117 million in payroll for the 10-player core roster in 2022. Even if Reinsdorf expands payroll to an unprecedented $160 million (which puts them just outside of Top 10 payroll territory), that’s approximately $43 million to find a new second baseman and right fielder, never mind players to fill out the other 14 positions. That’s pretty thin margins to find a top guy or two, even if most of those wind up being pre-arb players.

Dallas Keuchel probably can’t be unloaded (and Chicago’s starting pitching is too thin, anyhow). José Abreu is untradeable for both sentimental and practical reasons. Significant salary relief is not on the horizon; retaining Kimbrel on his option, in even the best-case scenario, is just not a tenable proposition. The White Sox will need more than one reliever this offseason, particularly with Michael Kopech likely transitioning to the rotation and cheap internal options like Matt Foster, Ryan Burr, and Jimmy Lambert not inspiring any confidence. The White Sox could use two Ryan Teperas more than they could use one Craig Kimbrel in 2022.

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