Craig Kimbrel arbitration: Will the Braves be forced to trade their closer?

Craig Kimbrel and Freddie Freeman - Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Rising salaries plus a stagnant payroll may make it difficult for the Braves to keep their core together in the years to come.

Until relatively recently, it seemed as if the financial strata of baseball teams was frozen. Big-market teams would remain big, small-market teams small, and the financial health of some might never improve. Now the disparity between the haves and have-nots isn't as clearly defined as it once was. Some of the organizations that were once paupers are now kings and vice-versa.

Some of the new fluidity is, naturally, dictated by finance. The ability to buy the lineup you want is no longer a privilege reserved for the Yankees. More teams have their hands on cash due to revenue sharing and new national and/or local television deals, and they seem intent to make up for lost time, spending like recent lottery winners. Others, like the Indians, have been less secure in their financial position and have been forced to wax and wane from munificence to thrift based on the economics of the Rust Belt and shifts in attendance.

The Braves have been in a similar situation to the Indians, a once-great baseball power brought low by changing economic realities. In the late 1990s they were safely ensconced in a new ballpark, still at least tangentially connected to Ted Turner (he had sold TBS, and by extension the team, to Time Warner in 1996) and drawing over 3 million fans a year. Given that, the fact that Ted's network was broadcasting Ted's ballgames led to a TV deal that was perhaps less than the team could have commanded in a fair bidding process was less important than it might otherwise have been.

Things have changed. Attendance is down and the team, sold to Liberty Media in 2007, found itself locked into an even more disadvantageous television deal as Time Warner went out the door. The Braves can ditch the gently-used stadium and the city altogether in a bid to increase attendance and thereby revenue, but their strangulating television deal, which has 13 years to run, isn't going anywhere soon (the further sale of 45 games still broadcast by Turner's Peachtree TV to Fox Sports South improved the team's television revenues, but not enough to ameliorate the poor quality of the main contract). The Braves have adapted well to their current realities, responding to a four-year stretch of third- and fourth-place finishes from 2006 through 2009 by returning to the playoffs in three of the last four years. Still, as the pace of change wrought by television money accelerates, the Braves may be hard-pressed to keep up. Craig Kimbrel's arbitration case may be the first sign of the coming breakdown.

Kimbrel, the fantastically successful closer, was one of the young players the Braves built around to get out of their four-year slump. Call them the Class of 2010: That season, the Braves had Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, and Jonny Venters reach the majors. The flood from the farm allowed the Braves to conceal the fact that they were no longer the big spenders they once were. In 2003, the Braves had a $106 million payroll, the third largest in the majors. While many teams have been trending upward in spending not only because they have more money but because players have become more expensive, the Braves have remained roughly static within a certain range. Going back to the beginning of the century, Atlanta has averaged approximately $92 million a season in player salaries, with a high of about $105 million in 2003 and a low of $82.4 million in 2000. (All figures courtesy Baseball Prospectus/Cot's Contracts.) Last season the Braves spent just $90 million on their payroll, which was not only considerably less than what they had spent spent 10 years earlier, but also put the Braves right in the middle of pack for salary spending for the fourth consecutive season.  As late as 2006, their current spending levels were enough to put them in the top 10 player payrolls. Now it's only good for 18th, or, to put it another way, the Pittsburgh Pirates spent more than the Braves in 2013.

Kimbrel_mediumCraig Kimbrel (Dilip Vishwanat)

There's a chicken-or-the-egg argument that is easy to miss here: Were the Braves thrifty because they had to be, or was it because they had a plethora of young talent that allowed them to fill in the bulk of the lineup card at the league-minimum salary? Regardless, that day is done, their young core shifting from bargain to burden as they grow through their arbitration years.

The Braves had 14 arbitration-eligible players this offseason, and opted to non-tender contracts to Elliot Johnson, Cristhian Martinez, and Paul Janish, reducing that number to 11. They settled with eight players, but the three still pending are their best: Kimbrel, Freeman, and Heyward. Most teams go great lengths to avoid arbitration, but Braves general manager Frank Wren seems intent on taking the trio through their hearings. While there's nothing inherently wrong with the salaries being determined by an arbiter -- the system exists for impasses such as these -- but it could also be interpreted as giving the stiff arm to their young talent, a preview of just how tedious and contentious long-term deal negotiations could become for an organization that is budget-conscious, whether they admit it or not.

The Braves' TV deal is cheap. Over the course of the 20-year contract, they are expected to net between $200 and $400 million dollars, which may seem like a lot, but teams will exceed that amount in just a few seasons because of how favorably their deals are structured. As Grant Brisbee pointed out earlier this month, the Braves stand to gain considerably less than their NL East counterparts in the coming seasons, and the disparity is grossly obvious now that the Phillies have a 25-year deal that will send $100 million per season into the organization. The Nationals are seeking a similar deal with their network, MASN, and even the Mets have considerable cash coming in from their television deal, when compared to the Marlins and Braves.

Given the team's (or Liberty Media's) apparent determination to keep the budget in $90-100 range, Kimbrel specifically could pose a problem. This is Kimbrel's first year of arbitration. His side has asked for $9 million and the Braves offered $6.55 million. If they settle prior to arbitration, his salary is likely to be close to the midpoint of $7.5 million -- higher than any reliever has ever been awarded in their first year of arbitration (for comparison, Jonathan Papelbon received $6.25 million in his first arbitration-eligible season, settling with the Red Sox prior to a hearing).

Papelbon_signs_medium Phillies GM Ruben Amaro gets his man. (Len Redkoles)

Should the two sides go to arbitration, the panel will have to choose between the two figures submitted; they are not allowed to split the difference. Even if the panel were to side with Kimbrel and award him $9 million for 2014, the Braves can handle that salary on a one-year basis, having subtracted Brian McCann, Tim Hudson, and Paul Maholm from the payroll (total savings: $$27.5 million), but Kimbrel's earnings could rapidly outgrow the narrow confines of current closer salaries, which presently top out at Papelbon's $13 million a season, followed by five others making between $9 and $11 million. Given the typical progression of salaries in arbitration, a win could put Kimbrel right behind Papelbon in year two and make him the most handsomely compensated reliever in history in year three.

In a vacuum, Kimbrel's salary wouldn't seem to matter much -- even were he to match or surpass the $15 million a year Mariano Rivera made from 2008 to 2012 by some small amount, that would still be less than half Clayton Kershaw's new yearly salary and only three-quarters of the $20 million that now seems to be the opening bid for most top-flight starting pitchers. But Kimbrel doesn't exist in a vacuum; it's hard to know if they Braves will be able to afford him beyond 2014 as they have to start paying more for all their players. In other words, for 2015, the Braves have contract terms for just the two Uptons and Dan Uggla; that's 23 other roster spots with unknown dollar amounts assigned.

In his four seasons with the Braves, Kimbrel has been an exceptional pitcher of incomparable talent. He has the highest career strikeout rate (15.9) of any pitcher in history through age 25 (his age last season, minimum 200 innings pitched). He's held hitters to a .155 batting average against in his career, which is also the best of any pitcher at his age. Kimbrel also had the most saves in the league in the past three seasons, which isn't the best measure of performance, but is the sort of counting stat that arbiters seem to use to justify a player's salary. Kimbrel has been so good that when it came time for arbitration-modeler Matt Swartz to project his 2014 salary, his usually reliable model spit-out a number so absurdly high that it forced him to create "The Kimbrel Rule" to adjust the salary back to a more reasonable level. The figure Swartz cited, $10.2 million, turns out to be only $1.2 more than the $9 million Kimbrel asked for -- when you are literally incomparable, it seems both computer models and agents are tempted to aim for the high side.

None of the foregoing accounts for the possibility that Kimbrel might decline. From Dick Radatz to Rob Dibble to K-Rod, these super-hard throwers tend to burn out quickly. Kimbrel might be another Billy Wagner, one of the few who managed to keep whiffing ‘em over the course of his career with only a slight decline, but then again, he might not. Even if Kimbrel were to maintain his performance for the next three seasons, it might still be tough for the Braves to justify allocating roughly a tenth of their payroll or more to a relief pitcher that throws around 60 innings per season.

Arbitration

What seems most likely is that the Braves will settle salaries with Freeman, Kimbrel, and Heyward (with or without arbitration) this offseason and they'll try to extend contracts to Freeman or Heyward to buy out the rest of their arbitration years sometime this season, as they successfully did with Brian McCann during spring training 2007. There were rumors that the Braves and Heyward were already discussing an extension last season, but those negotiations stalled, possibly due to injury concerns and his painfully slow start in 2013. Signing Kimbrel is the riskiest choice, first because of his skillset, second because 60 innings is 60 innings no matter how good they are. Kimbrel is undoubtedly good enough right now that he's worth the expense on a dollar per WAR basis, but if he slips at all, you have a mismatch between player, role, and compensation -- or a "Papelbon," as they call it in Philadelphia.

That would suggest a possible trade of Kimbrel, if not now than before the 2015 season. There are plenty of teams much richer than the Braves (or at least more generous) who can afford expensive specialized players  and can stand to eat contract if something goes terribly wrong. Such a move would not only insulate the Braves from devoting a disproportionate chunk of their payroll to their closer, but the players received would help improve the team's depth in other areas. The nice thing about baseball's highly rigid conception of the closer's role is that while having the most-dominant reliever ever is certainly a blessing, the job is so limited that a team can also get by with a mere human converting 90 percent of save opportunities instead of a god converting 93. Mariano Rivera's career save percentage was only 89, after all.

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