Let's find homes for Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel remain unsigned. They are fine ballplayers. Either one could help any of the 30 teams, though the price those teams are willing to pay for their services has obviously remained a barrier, and the two pitchers remain drifting about in free-agent land.

One hurdle to their employment that has perhaps been under-reported is that both players turned down a $17.9 million qualifying offer from their previous team. That means the signing team must pay a draft-pick penalty, which varies depending on that team's financial status. It's worth noting that all first-round picks are now protected unless a team has multiple first-round picks. In that case, the team loses its later pick. This is an obstacle and part of the reason Kimbrel and Keuchel remain unsigned, but it isn't an insurmountable one.

(As an aside: If there's one thing the MLBPA needs to fight for in the next collective bargaining agreement, it's getting rid of all free-agent compensation and draft penalties. Once you reach free agency, you should be a free agent. You've earned the right to not have any restrictions placed on your services.)

Anyway, it's possible that Kimbrel in particular could wait until after the draft in June to sign. At that point, his free-agent status would no longer be tied to any draft penalties. Since teams are likely interested in him on a shorter-term deal to begin with -- even potential Hall of Fame closers are still closers, with all their inherent risks -- he could sign a one-year, prorated deal and then head back into free agency. As a second-time free agent, he would no longer be tied to the draft-pick penalties. If he waits, there's also the chance that some contending team's closer gets injured or somebody's bullpen falters, and suddenly interest increases.

I don't think that will happen. I still believe he and Keuchel will sign soon. Here's a look at some of the likely landing spots for each player:

Sean Doolittle / Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough


The Nationals are currently about $4.5 million below the luxury-tax threshold, and going over for a third straight season would mean paying a 50 percent tax on every dollar above the threshold. Still, there is an obvious need for bullpen depth here behind Doolittle, as the team is counting on Rosenthal coming back after missing all of 2018 and Barraclough, who has averaged 5.5 walks per nine innings in his career, to throw enough strikes to avoid his declining trends the past three years with the Marlins.

Kenley Jansen / Joe Kelly, Pedro Baez


Jansen was one of the best closers in the game until last season, when he served up 13 home runs in 71 innings, though he blew just four save chances. He has struggled in the past two World Series, with three blown saves, a loss and four home runs in nine appearances. Of course, Kimbrel also was shaky last October through the postseason, though he managed to avoid any blown saves. The Dodgers have more depth than the Nationals, with the likes of Caleb Ferguson, Dylan Floro and Scott Alexander, and signing Kimbrel would create a closer controversy that might be a big headache for Dave Roberts.

: Arodys Vizcaino / A.J. Minter, Dan Winkler


The Braves ranked 17th in the majors in bullpen ERA in 2018, and FanGraphs projects only a small improvement (3.85 ERA), which would again leave them in the middle of the pack. Kimbrel and his family were recently spotted having dinner in Celebration, Florida, near where the Braves hold spring training, but maybe he just took the family to Disney World. The Braves have made just one significant move this offseason -- signing Josh Donaldson -- and adding Kimbrel would bring him back to where he started his career.

David Robertson / Seranthony Dominguez, Pat Neshek


Gabe Kapler ran a hyperactive bullpen last year -- only the Angels and Cubs had more relief appearances -- and they've added Robertson, Juan Nicasio and James Pazos to a group that ranked 18th in the majors with a 4.19 ERA. With Robertson and Dominguez, I don't think there's an urgent need for late-game relief here, but adding Kimbrel would allow Kapler to push Robertson and Dominguez back into the seventh and eighth innings and shorten games for a rotation that has some questions behind Aaron Nola.

Trevor May / Taylor Rogers, Addison Reed


The Twins haven't been linked to Kimbrel the way the first four teams listed here have, but they might be the team that would benefit the most from signing him, especially since they have a chance to chase down the Indians in the AL Central if things break right. Fernando Rodney was the closer last year until he was traded, so May will have to win the job in spring training, but he's the favorite after a strong showing down the stretch last year. Reed and Trevor Hildenberger had long ball issues last year, as did free-agent signing Blake Parker while with the Angels. This group could be good or bad. Signing Kimbrel would add a little more certainty.

Cody Allen / Justin Anderson, Cam Bedrosian


The Angels signed Cody Allen, coming off a rough season in Cleveland, and are counting on the hard-throwing Anderson and rookie Ty Buttrey, but they clearly lack a settled late-game group. Signing Kimbrel would help, but the Astros are such heavy favorites in the division that L.A.'s best bet for a postseason slot remains the wild card. Apparently that hasn't been enough to entice the Angels to spend big this winter.

Matt Barnes / Ryan Brasier, Tyler Thornburg


Oh, yes ... the Red Sox. Dave Dombrowski and ownership have been consistent all spring, saying that there is basically no chance Kimbrel returns to the Red Sox. The team's bullpen depth has been hurt in recent days, however, asSteven Wright was suspended 80 games for a PED violation. Brasier has been slowed by an infection in his toe, and Thornburg has struggled early in spring training, allowing 10 hits, seven runs and two home runs in four innings. The Red Sox might be a little more desperate for relief help than they were at the start of camp. Can they win the division without Kimbrel? Sure. Can they lose the division with Kimbrel? Sure. But bringing him back makes them better.

Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez


This is still the team most often linked to Keuchel -- even after all its offseason maneuvering. It's easy to see why Keuchel makes sense: Pivetta, Eflin and Velasquez combined to go 27-34 with a 4.68 ERA. They also fanned 478 in 438 innings, so the Phillies can envision better results from them. I do like Pivetta in particular as a breakout candidate, but Keuchel would be the No. 2 guy in this rotation and would allow Philly to bump Velasquez into a swingman/long relief role.

Joey Lucchesi, Eric Lauer, Robbie Erlin, Matt Strahm, somebody else


Lucchesi and Lauer were rookies in 2018, Erlin started a career-high 12 games, and Strahm has eight career starts. In other words, this is a very inexperienced rotation. Chris Paddack, who hasn't pitched above Double-A, has looked so good that he's reportedly part of the battle for the Opening Day assignment (but most likely, he starts the year in the minors). Those four are all lefties, so bringing in Keuchel as a veteran mentor makes some sense, but after spending big on Manny Machado, Keuchel is probably an unlikely fit.

Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kevin Gausman, Julio Teheran, Touki Toussaint


Foltynewicz, coming off a season with a 2.85 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 183 innings, was to be the team's Opening Day starter, but the Braves announced Monday that he'll miss that assignment due to the sore elbow that has kept him off a mound since Feb. 24. Remember, the Braves are already down Anibal Sanchez, who signed with the Nationals after posting a 2.83 ERA in 24 starts. Yes, they have plenty of young arms waiting in the wings, including Kyle Wright, Max Fried and Mike Soroka, but Keuchel gives them certainty if they have to hedge against Foltynewicz's health.

Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi, Michael Pineda, Martin Perez


The comment here is similar to the Kimbrel one for Minnesota: The Twins might have the most to gain, considering the gap between their fifth starter and Keuchel and the improved odds of making the playoffs that Keuchel would bring. That rotation ranking feels pretty generous, as there is obvious volatility in what to expect from Pineda (coming off Tommy John surgery) and Perez -- and even Gibson and Odorizzi (his ERA has risen three seasons in a row). They do have youngsters Fernando Romero and Stephen Gonsalves, but Romero might end up in the bullpen, and Gonsalves is more of a 4-A arm unless he learns to throw more strikes.

Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz, Jason Vargas


Vargas was terrible in 2018, and the others have had various issues with staying healthy. There is basically no depth behind those five. The Mets are well under the luxury tax, and their long-term commitments beyond Robinson Cano are minimal. Just because they're paying Vargas $8 million this year (plus a $2 million buyout) is no reason not to sign Keuchel.

Mike Minor, Lance Lynn, Drew Smyly, Shelby Miller, Edinson Volquez


This is an all-reclamation rotation, as the Rangers hope to get something out of Smyly, Miller and Volquez. Good luck. The Rangers aren't going to contend for the playoffs this season, but they move into a new park for 2020 and presumably will be looking to be more competitive then. They have money to spend, and it's not like this is an organization that has been churning out starting pitchers the past several years.

Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Mike Leake, Wade LeBlanc, Felix Hernandez


The Mariners aren't billing themselves as contenders, but neither are they in a complete rebuild. They have Justus Sheffield waiting to take over a slot and Justin Dunn after him, but King Felix has looked horrible in spring training, and LeBlanc will likely regress from his 3.72 ERA/4.28 FIP from a season ago. Keuchel would project as the team's best starter, and Hernandez's big salary comes off the books after this season.

Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, James Paxton,J.A. Happ, CC Sabathia


The Yankees keep insisting that they're simply being cautious with Severino's shoulder, so at this point it doesn't appear to be a long-term concern. Even if Severino misses a couple of starts, there is capable back-of-the-rotation depth with the likes of Luis Cessa (who has looked good so far in camp), Domingo German and Jonathan Loaisiga. You also wonder if the Yankees have their sights set on a bigger Astros free-agent pitcher next offseason: Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander.