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What might the Cardinals learn from the Braves and Kimbrel?

I have been watching the actions of the Atlanta Braves over the last two weeks with particular interest. The club had typically seemed to hold back in locking down young players from their arbitration years into early free agency. That has changed with the extensions given to first baseman Freddie Freeman, starting pitcher Julio Teheran and closer Craig Kimbrel, among others.

I see all three contracts as having implications to the St. Louis Cardinals, at least indirectly. I will start with the most recent, the four-year, $42 million contract extension given to Kimbrel. The deal also includes a fifth-year club option at $13 million.

While avoiding Kimbrel’s first possible arbitration hearing, this is the largest contract given to any MLB reliever yet to amass four years of service time in the game’s history – by a whopping $27 million. Even so, some critics felt Kimbrel and his agent left money on the table. The right-hander is that good.

I am not going to recount Kimbrel’s stats, as you can look them up. For purposes of this article, accept that the 25-year-old is the game’s most dominant reliever.

Even so, is this kind of expenditure the best use of a team’s money? After all, closers typically throw only 60 or so innings each season, one-quarter to one-third that of a single top-line starter. Granted, those 60 frames are often the most pressure-packed ones.

I am not criticizing the Braves’ decision, as they know best their future three years out and beyond. (2017 is the earliest Kimbrel could have left the Braves via free agency, so his first two free agent years are at most lost.)

I cannot help but think about this in the context of the Cardinals. Jason Motte has not been the kind of lights-out closer as Kimbrel, but before his Tommy John surgery, Motte had been very good.

Two years ago, the Cardinals and Motte were at the same point MLB service time-wise as are the Braves and Kimbrel today. Instead of going for the long-term deal, the Cardinals gave Motte one year at $1.95 million. That made sense, since Motte had served only about a month as a closer, not three seasons like Kimbrel.

A year later, the Cards and Motte agreed to a two-year deal that covered his final pair of arbitration years only – 2013 and 2014 – for a total of $12 million. Therefore, Motte will become free agent-eligible on his normal schedule following this season.

Obviously, Motte has the additional complication of having lost the entire 2013 season due to Tommy John surgery. He has this season to prove to himself, the Cardinals and the other 29 teams that he can effectively close games once again.

As points of comparison regarding market value, Kimbrel’s salary in the first two of his free agent-eligible years will be $13 million, assuming the final-year option is picked up.

Would the Cardinals pay Motte $26 million to close in 2015 and 2016 or even $14 million or so via a qualifying offer for next season? Should they?

As much as pitchers like Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Joe Kelly want to start, how realistic is it that all of them could do it with St. Louis? How could the Cardinals ever be able to fit them all into a five-man rotation? Further, another wave of highly-regarded arms will soon be circling the airport.

In other words, despite how good Motte has been and how good he may be again later this season, the Cardinals can afford to let him walk. They could do so in confidence, knowing they have other inexpensive arms to step in, while allowing them to deploy the cash elsewhere. It is a tremendous luxury to have. If Motte re-establishes is value, the Cards could be comfortable making him a qualifying offer for 2015 this fall and add a draft pick when Motte declines and signs elsewhere.

Rosenthal is still two years away from being where Kimbrel is now in terms of service time, and some believe he could become similar in terms of effectiveness. The Cards’ current closer’s first potential free agent season is 2019. A lot can happen in five years, but the Cardinals can rest assured they can avoid paying $13 million or more per season for any closer in the interim – if they choose to go that route.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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20 Responses to “What might the Cardinals learn from the Braves and Kimbrel?”

  1. blingboy says:

    With a closer, I’d rather pay market year to year than try to save by locking the guy up for multiple years. Kimbrel will be paid like a top shelf guy for the next 4 years whether he continues to be or not. It seems like if you are willing to spend $10+ for a good closer you could find one most years. Realistically, how much were the Cards looking to save giving Motte the second year when they did? It will likely take him until late in the season to regain top form, if he does.

  2. blingboy says:

    On another note. Reading about former CNN personality Miles O’Brien having to get his forearm amputated due to complications during fascial release surgery caused me to revisit the Kyle Lohse experience when he was here. Like Lohse, O’Brien developed Compartment Syndrome following trauma to his forearm. O’Brien’s develped quickly after a crushing type injury sustained when something heavy fell on his arm, but the original accident did not cause any type of injury that caused him to go to rushing to the hospital or anything. A few days later compartment syndrome developed and he had the same procudure that Kyle eventually had, albeit on more of an emergency basis, and it ended with his arm having to come off. The article explains how compartment syndrome can turn life threatening very quickly.

    • Brian Walton says:

      Had not heard about that. Sounds awful.

    • CariocaCardinal says:

      I have undergone elective (non-emergency) compartment syndrome surgery on both legs. I think in my case (as in that of Lohse) the surgery is relatively safe. In the case in the article i believe it is was the underlying injury rather than the surgery that caused the problems. I wonder on what basis the author calls the surgery gruesome (more than any other surgery).

      • blingboy says:

        I don’t know his basis, but I saw Lohse’s scar up close so I believe it.

        • CariocaCardinal says:

          Ii have 4 scars – one on each side of each calf.

          What is gruesome is the way they meaure the pressure inside the muscle. For the calf at least, it is the longest needle I have ever seen and it was by far the most painful injection I’ve ever had in my life (ranks up there with unnumbed dental work.)

  3. CariocaCardinal says:

    The real question is what Is it the Braves should have learned from the Cardinals and Motte.

    Regarding Rosenthal – ” ….and some believe he could become similar in terms of effectiveness.” Really? Who, some idiots on twitter? Kimbrel is probably the greatest closer of all time. That would be more exaggerated than comparing Taveres to Babe Ruth. And you can imagine the accusations of putting pressure on the young kid if you made that comparison.

    • Brian Walton says:

      I wonder if I am the only one to see the extreme irony in one attacking perceived exaggeration while in the same breath anointing a player with just three years of experience as “probably the greatest of all time” at his position.

      I acknowledged Kimbrel is the best closer in the game currently, but a reasonable person would stop right there.

      Regarding Rosenthal, as was noted, the potential is still ahead. He may reach it or he may not. One factoid: In 2013, Kimbrel and Rosenthal had identical WAR values of 2.2.

      • CariocaCardinal says:

        It depends on the value you place on longevity (or not). A solid case can be made for Kimbrel’s 3 seasons being the best 3 consecutive relief seasons ever and his 2012 for being the best ever. For not wanting to punish Kimbrel for his lack of longevity – just call me unreasonable.

        • Brian Walton says:

          It also depends on making a major assumption that a player will continue with three years of stats for another 12 or 15 years more. Until then, Mariano Rivera will remain the best closer of all time. That isn’t punishment; it is reality versus a prediction.

          Having the greatest season of all time or even the greatest three years of all time would be a nice start, but that is all it would be at this point.

          • CariocaCardinal says:

            You have your reality just as Westie has his 😀

            My reality looks at a player’s career and compares it to other player’s over a similar period – as far as I now only Eckersly has a 3 year span that rivals Kimbrel’s.

            If Rosenthal ever post an ERA+ equal to Kimbrel’s worst season so far, I’ll be thrilled. Note: Kimbrel has 2 seasons where his ERA+ is better than Rivera;s best year ever.

          • CariocaCardinal says:

            That assumption would be necessary if I were to say that Kimbrel will end his career as the best closer of all time.

  4. Brian Walton says:

    Some have very short memories. 10 years ago, one could have made the same “Greatest Closer Ever” claims on behalf of Eric Gagne – and some people were. In his first three years as a closer, all he did was set the major league record by converting 84 consecutive save opportunities and win a Cy Young Award with the Dodgers.

    Before he turned 30, Gagne hurt his elbow and his back and got caught up in steroids suspicion. That was that.

    If the first three years as a closer is the way to proclaim the greatest of all time, then Gagne is the man. The numbers don’t lie.

      Year ERA Saves K/BB WAR
    Gagne 2002 1.97 52 7.1 3.3
      2003 CYA 1.20 55 6.9 4.3
      2004 2.19 45 5.2 3.2
      total   152   10.8
      Year ERA Saves K/BB WAR
    Kimbrel 2011 2.10 46 4.0 3.1
      2012 1.01 42 8.3 3.3
      2013 1.21 50 4.9 2.2
      total   138   8.6
  5. […] see all three deals as having implications to the St. Louis Cardinals, at least indirectly. I started with Kimbrel the other day and today’s subject is […]

  6. […] see all three deals as having implications to the St. Louis Cardinals, at least indirectly. I started with Kimbrel, followed with Freeman and conclude with […]

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