The Luxury Tax Shouldn’t Stop the Red Sox From Bringing Back Craig Kimbrel

Craig Kimbrel is a good closer. A great one, even. I know this because he transcends his counterparts in all three categories of my patent-pending, rejected from Shark Tank “Qualities of a Good Closer” list:

  1. He gets a lot of saves and has a low ERA
  2. He nearly blows a good portion of said saves, but manages to hang on in the end (a classic hero’s journey)
  3. He has one absolutely baffling quirk (his stance when looking in for the sign). This is what makes a closer a closer, and is, thus, the most important rule. Nobody knows why closers do these things, but the baseball Gods made them psychotic weirdos. 

Craig Kimbrel is exceedingly good in each of those categories. He was the fastest in history to reach 300 career saves, he forgot he was allowed to throw strikes this postseason and nearly blew every game, and he holds himself at an angle that could not possibly be comfortable for his back when peering in at his catcher. He is the perfect embodiment of what a closer should be, an impeccable creation from the minds that brought you the likes of Norm Charlton, Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage, Jonathan Papelbon, and Fernando Rodney. If this were Ex Machina, Craig Kimbrel would be the sexy robot, and there is little doubt in my mind that he would pass the Turing Test. 

And yet here we are, wallowing into mid-January, and Craig Kimbrel loiters on the free agent market like some sort of common squatter. The once robust reliever pool has seen the likes of Andrew Miller, Jeurys Familia, Joe Kelly, Joakim Soria, Kelvin Herrera, David Robertson, and Zach Britton all find lucrative contracts. Kimbrel is, in the words of the weird Dodo bird from Ice Age, one of the last melons: a final prize available for bullpen-needy teams to reel in. And guess who so happens to be in desperate need of some relievers?

The 2018 Boston Red Sox were the greatest iteration of the team in franchise history. They won 108 games, trounced through the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers, and won their fourth World Series Title this century. It was a lot of fun. Well, not for fans of other teams I suppose, or for Joe West. But for me, personally, it was great. The Red Sox won with contributions from every facet of the game, and from all kinds of players; their dynamic offense, excellent defense, and strong pitching staff all found ways to chip in, and when the star power was burning at more of a dim ember than a raging flame, a motley crew of role players stepped up at just the right moments to guide Boston to victory. But for all the joy last season brought, if the Red Sox hope to win a franchise-record fourth consecutive American League East Division Title and defend their World Championship, the bullpen remains a serious concern. 

Now, I wouldn’t dare go as far as several Yankees have already gone and call the Red Sox “about equal” to the boys from the Bronx; the Red Sox have the second best player in baseball, the best offense, and, when healthy, the best starter in the American League. However, the bullpen was shaky throughout much of the dream that was 2018, and the departure of Joe Kelly, and the hypothetical departure of Kimbrel, would leave it in the hands of Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, and…uh, Brandon Workman, I guess? Tyler Thornburg? There is little in baseball that can inspire more anguish and fear than a shoddy bullpen (ask the 2011-2014 Detroit Tigers), and if I’m subjected to the regular occurrence of Heath Hembree pitching in game-deciding innings, I will literally melt into a puddle of liquid on my mom’s new carpet, which would piss her off. The Red Sox should still be favored to win the division next year even without reinforcements to the pen, but baseball is the most unpredictable sport in the world; the difference between Boston repeating as World Champions and losing in the Wild Card Game thanks to a late-game blown lead could come down to as much as a single lights out reliever. 

So why then, with about as strong a chance of recapturing 2018’s glory as you can find in a league with so much parity and such a long season, with the scary possibility of the bullpen ruining that opportunity, and with the championship window in danger of closing as Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, Rick Porcello, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mookie Betts reach free agency in the next two seasons, are the Red Sox sitting here claiming they “have not anticipated having a large expenditure for a closer?” We’re currently in an era where many owners are reluctant to spend. Last offseason, the Red Sox capitalized on the timidness of other teams, inking J.D. Martinez to a lower-than-expected contract in late February. Martinez was so good, he won two Silver Sluggers. The entire Yankees team won zero. Now, though, the Red Sox apprehension to address their biggest roster hole could result in 2019 and 2020 fading into our memories as disappointing ghosts of the dynasty that could have been.

Again, I’ll ask: with so much benefit to be gained from resigning Kimbrel to strengthen the bullpen, why are the Red Sox displaying such a lack of temerity? In short, money. I could write a several page long rebuttal to why that reason is dumb, but I shouldn’t have to. The Red Sox are a really good team, but, even more than that, they are an insanely valuable and wealthy team. According to a Forbes article following the 2017 season, the Red Sox were valued at $2.8 billion. In that same season, one in which attendance fell and Boston was subjected to another quick playoff exit, they still managed to generate a whopping $453 million in revenue. That is a lot of money. It’s insane. 2018 was, by all marks, a better season than 2017 that featured a deep playoff run and plenty of merchandise sales, so I don’t think it’s that farfetched to assume their revenue was quite a bit bulkier than $453 million this year. They have the greenbacks, and they have a really good team that will most likely not be as good in, say, two seasons; this should be the perfect recipe for short-sighted spending. What does it matter if they profit $100 million or $40 million next year? We’re all going to die someday. The Red Sox winning when they’ve got the chance is all that should matter. 

I understand the reluctance to continue to blow through the luxury tax thresholds because of the debt with lowell, but it’s largely inconsequential. The Red Sox exceeded the tax this year and were rewarded with, number one, a World Series, and, number two, an $11.95 million fee, to be paid in cash to Rob Manfred. Remember all that World Series merchandise that went flying off the shelves, to the point where I wanted to buy myself a shirt the day after Game 5, but the only available size was a 5XL? Well, I alone spent enough on Red Sox novelty items in celebration (including thousands of shot glasses, a pair of mittens for my mother, and a diamond encrusted eyepatch with “2018 World Champions” engraved on it) to more than cancel out the money lost from paying the tax. Okay, maybe that’s hyperbole, but I still spent several hundred dollars on that stuff, as did plenty of other fans. That tax is meaningless for a Championship-winning team. I don’t have playoff ticket sale or merchandise revenue numbers available to me, but it’s a safe assumption that they easily amounted to more than $11.95 million. And even if the Sox didn’t win it all, that’s a small sum of money to the people who own the team. John Henry alone is worth $2.5 billion, meaning that the $11.95 million tax is about .005% of his total net worth. To put that in perspective, if $11.95 million fell out of his wallet one day while he was riding his golden horse to his anti-gravity house (or whatever rich people do), it would be roughly equivalent to me taking two dollars out of my $400 bank account and throwing it in the trash. John Henry isn’t willing to spend two measly dollars to give me the affirmation that I’m not wasting my life caring about some stupid game that I crave, and desperately need. That is so selfish. The least he could do is wire me the $11.5 million to make up for it. (This author’s note if for John Henry only, so if you aren’t him, please don’t read this: my bank account wiring number is 582837820381.) 

The Red Sox will also see a penalty imposed upon their top draft pick thanks to their excessive spending in 2018; they’ll drop from the 33rd overall pick down to the 43rd. I did an experiment where I looked at every 33rd and 43rd pick in every draft since 2010, and the only person worth mentioning was Michael Kopech, who the Red Sox selected 33rd overall in 2014. The next best one was Zach Eflin. The draft is a crapshoot. The 43rd pick offers about as good of a chance of selecting an impact player as any of the 10 picks before it. The Red Sox could trade all their draft picks for Zach Eflin and I wouldn’t care if it meant more October glory. The bigger issue here is that the lower pick also results in about a $500,000 deduction to the overall bonus pool Boston can use to sign draftees, and while that does hurt, I tend to be on the “Who cares?” side of the argument. The front office should probably be with me on that, because the likelihood that anyone important that is currently employed with the Sox brass will still be around in a decade is minimal. It shouldn’t matter to Dave Dombrowski and his cohorts if the farm system is, as the experts say, “good,” because they won’t be around for the next great Red Sox team, especially since an excellent one is right in front of them.

The Red Sox have a chance to do something that hasn’t been done in the Major Leagues since the Toronto Blue Jays did it in 1992 and 1993, as long as we also ignore the time the Yankees did it more recently than that. All they have to do is spend a little bit of extra money. Craig Kimbrel is sitting out there waiting for phone calls that have yet to come, and the longer he remains unsigned, the more likely he is to let his mind wander and come up with something even more zany to add to his pitching stance, something even worse than the arm thing, like maybe putting his leg behind his head.

I understand that Kimbrel is coming off of a disappointing season, and perhaps 2017 was less of a return to form than it was a final gasp for the old Kimbrel. Maybe 2018 is who he is now. But you give me a closer with nearly 14 K/9, and the 16th lowest hard contact rate out of all eligible relievers, and you can bet I won’t shake my head and say, “Sorry, we already have Marcus Walden.” Give Kimbrel a Yasmani Grandal kind of contract, a one-year deal for slightly more than the qualifying offer that was extended to him before all this nonsense began. Let him add another solid campaign to his resume and reenter free agency next offseason with a second ring, a better postseason showing, and without the draft pick compensation tied to his name.

And the Red Sox shouldn’t stop there. Adam Ottavino is another elite reliever still available, and he would instantly become one of Boston’s most trusted arms. I’ve been largely unbothered by the likes of Robertson and Britton signing elsewhere this offseason precisely because Ottavino has remained unsigned. To me, he is the most attractive reliever on the market, coming off of a season in which he was 93% better than league average per ERA+. This man throws a slider that’s as incredible as he looks in a suit when making a guest appearance on MLB Now to show off his impressive knowledge in advanced analytics. Perhaps my judgement is clouded by my very real crush on him, or because of how dizzy I got watching this clip of him throwing sliders, but Adam Ottavino would give the Red Sox a serious weapon that I would have killed for this last Postseason. It’s one thing to have the Joe Kelly’s and Ryan Brasier’s of the world pitch out of their mind for a month, but it’s a lot more reassuring to have an animal like Ottavino ready to come in and make every hitter look like Craig Kimbrel made Giancarlo Stanton look (that is to say, very bad). 

David Robertson got $23 million over two years and Andrew Miller got $25 million over the same span. I would imagine that Ottavino could be inked for something similar, with the Zach Britton deal ($39 million over three years with the possibility of a “swellopt,” as Scott Boras, a man who absolutely isn’t a crazy person, but a sane, normal human that is capable of love, empathy, and remorse, dubbed it) representing his max. Let’s assume the Red Sox were able to bring him in for two years and $30 million, and Kimbrel for a single year and $20 million. That would add $35 million to the books for 2019, which would push up to around $40 million after the luxury tax penalty. For John Henry, that would still be the equivalent of me spending $6.40 on half a footlong from Subway, which isn’t even enough for a full meal. Keep in mind, the Red Sox have other really rich owners too. This is chump change. The Red Sox could sign Kimbrel and Ottavino, shore up their bullpen, and, figuratively speaking, be rolling in the footlongs (and if they really wanted, they have the money to literally do this, too). 

The bottom line remains: Boston has an opportunity this coming season, and maybe the season after, to be a powerhouse. Maybe not a 108 win powerhouse, but they certainly are primed for a chance to win another World Series. This group of players isn’t going to be around for much longer, as heartbreaking as that is to say, and failing to cash in on this opportunity is unforgivable, or it should be in the eyes of the fans. Baseball teams are making more money than ever thanks to high ticket prices, lucrative television contracts, and revenue sharing schemes, but, league-wide, salaries have failed to rise. Last year, the Red Sox were willing to spend where other teams weren’t, and they were handsomely rewarded. And yet, despite that lesson in the glories of being a high market team, here sit the defending World Champions, twiddling their thumbs while the owners pocket more profit. The Red Sox players deserve better. The Red Sox fans deserve better. Ignore the luxury tax, and add to a team that is already elite. Otherwise, the next few seasons might be remembered with dumbfounded disappointment as wasted opportunities to build a dynasty. 

Photo Credit: Keith Allison, https://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/42179896960

Dakota Lovins

Dakota is a sophomore in college, and one day he wants to be a baseball announcer. He is 6'5'' with size 17 shoes, a fan of the Boston Red Sox, and he is afraid of moths. Last year he finished in 5th place out of 10 in his fantasy baseball league. Follow him on twitter @kotalov16.

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