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.)
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.