What would Craig Kimbrel mean to the Brewers? Continued bullpen dominance (2024)

PHOENIX — The Brewers’ signing of catcher Yasmani Grandal to a one-year, $18.25 million deal was one of the most unexpected moments of the offseason. But really, it was the organization taking advantage of a unique opportunity that presented itself — a high-value player in a relatively weak free-agent market. That opportunity has perhaps revealed itself once again.

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Meet Craig Kimbrel.

The Brewers and Kimbrel are in discussions on a deal that would bring the 30-year-old right-handed reliever and his 333 career saves to Milwaukee, sources tell The Athletic Wisconsin. The extent of the negotiations is unclear, but people familiar with the situation indicate that an agreement remains possible.

Such a deal between the Brewers and Kimbrel would represent a dramatic shift in the National League Central. It would give the club, already armed with one of baseball’s best bullpen trios — left-hander Josh Hader and right-handers Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel — one of the best relief pitchers in recent history.

“He’s arguably the best in the game, maybe ever, the way it’s going,” said infielder Corey Spangenberg, a teammate of Kimbrel’s in 2015 with the San Diego Padres.

The bullpen was the Brewers’ biggest asset in 2018, when they won 96 games and the division title, advancing to Game 7 of the NLCS. It has become common practice for general manager David Stearns to check in on available free agents to attempt to find value. But the Brewers’ pursuit of Kimbrel comes with important context.

Jeffress, a stalwart in the pen during the 2018 season, is going to begin the season on the injured list. The ailment, which Jeffress termed “shoulder weakness,” is not considered serious. The Brewers are unsure whether his eventual return will come in mid- or late-April.

The real mystery, however, is Knebel. He has stopped throwing in recent days due to what a team source called a tired arm.There is no soreness, Knebel said Wednesday, insisting the issue was minor in nature and nothing to be concerned about.“Just giving it a break,” he said, before departing for the trainer’s room.

But when asked to comment on Thursday, manager Craig Counsell said the club is sending Knebel to get his elbow checked out by the head team physician, Dr. William Raasch. “There is reason for concern.” Counsell said.

Considering the Brewers lost right-handed middle reliever Bobby Wahl long-term to a torn ACL on March 1, the need for additional bullpen help is magnified. The club has added right-hander Josh Fields on a minor-league deal, but he’s no Kimbrel.

Kimbrel’s recent numbers in the bullpen — a 2.44 ERA and 305/75 strikeout-to-walk ratio in three seasons with the Boston Red Sox — put him in the upper echelon of relievers. During the 2017 season, as noted by MLB.com, he at one point struck out 120 of 236 hitters. His fastball velocity at that time sat in the 98-99 mph range, while it sat 96-97 mph during the ’18 season.

Kimbrel’s success with the fastball/curveball combination has the Brewers intrigued. It is why Kimbrel has saved at least 31 games in each season since 2011. It is also why in nine seasons in the majors, his career ERA sits at 1.91.

“People don’t talk about it,” Spangenberg said, “but he’s got better numbers than every other closer so far throughout his career.”

.@Kimbrel46 (29 years, 342 days) is the youngest pitcher to reach 300 career saves.

His save percentage (90.9%) is best in baseball history (min. 250 SVO). pic.twitter.com/v1TtEVpBJI

— MLB Stats (@MLBStats) May 6, 2018

But there are concerns. In a season in which he finished with a 2.3 bWAR his postseason numbers stand out for the opposite reason. He allowed runs in five of nine outings and struggled to throw strikes, walking eight batters in 10.2 innings. It later came out that he was tipping his pitches. Additionally, signing Kimbrel would force the Brewers to part with their fourth-round pick in this June’s amateur draft, having already lost their third-highest to sign Grandal.

Where exactly the Brewers envision Kimbrel is unclear. The most likely options in the eighth and ninth innings on the current roster, of course, are Jeffress and Knebel. But the Brewers do not have a set closer and prefer to identify the best matchups in each game. It is why, even with one of the best bullpens in baseball (when healthy), adding Kimbrel makes sense.

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But only 27 of Kimbrel’s 532 ⅔ career regular-season innings have come before the ninth. If the Brewers indeed come to terms with him, it would allow Counsell to be both creative and aggressive in deploying Hader, Jeffress and Knebel in high-leverage situations.

Which is why we should not be surprised if Brewers owner Mark Attanasio were willing to facilitate such a move. The club took on $25 million in annual payroll, adding Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich on the same day in January 2018, and another $28 million with Grandal and the eventual re-signing of Mike Moustakas this winter. Even with a franchise-record payroll of roughly $125 million, the Brewers appear to be open to stretching the limits once more.

“The chips are all in now,” Attanasio said after the Moustakas signing. “We’ll find the money at midseason if we need to.”

Perhaps even earlier.

“Mark is one of the only guys in this sport who is fully committed to winning and to putting all — or at least the majority — of revenue that gets generated back into the team year in and year out,” outfielder Ryan Braun said. “We’re not seeing that around the game, but we’re seeing that here, and we’re appreciative of that as players.”

(Photo: Billie Weiss / Getty Images)

What would Craig Kimbrel mean to the Brewers? Continued bullpen dominance (2024)
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