January is over. When’s the parade to celebrate?
A dismal month from weather to baseball movement slinked into the past with an actual signing: left-hander Wade Miley reportedly reached a one-year, $4.5 million agreement with the Houston Astros. Huzzah.
Also back in the news was Bryce Harper. He reportedly met with the San Diego Padres. Are they serious? Is he serious? Unclear. Is this taking too long, sucking the life out of what was supposed to be a dynamic offseason time for the sport? Yes. Anytime intrigue turns to impatience, the industry has lost.
Meanwhile, the Nationals rest with an eye on the flattening pulse of Harper’s free agency. A burn through the roster shows no demonstrable holes. Catcher? Fixed. Second base? Lots of potential power. The large gap in the rotation? Addressed with what looks like a $140 million price tag more generated by the Nationals wanting to be sure than market forces.
It’s in this setting we’ll revisit the words when Davey Martinez was hired as manager. That’s the time when the Nationals moved from strong payroll, fun stars and sustainable winning to an organization that simply demanded World Series appearances. If that’s the stance, then here’s an unsolicited recommendation: Dig up the money for reliever Craig Kimbrel and start working on the Harper tribute video.
First, this is how the league is morphing. Innings absorbed by rotations are on the decline. Even Max Scherzer has come to accept it’s seven-innings-and-out for him most of the time. Twelve MLB starters pitched 200 or more innings last season. That’s down from 15 each of the prior two seasons, and a drastic reduction from the 28 who threw 200 or more in 2015.
The Nationals remain emphatic believers in high-end, high-work starting pitching. Two of the 12 pitchers to exceed 200 innings last season are now on the team: Scherzer and Patrick Corbin. Washington expects 28 starts from Stephen Strasburg. More is gravy. However, fraying begins among the final two spots of the rotation, a slippage which will need to be made up elsewhere.
Kimbrel pitches a lot. He averages 68 appearances and 67 innings each season of his career. And his presence would take what projects as a strong bullpen to among the league’s best, an element lacking year after year while the Nationals’ other parts often hold their end.
This depressed market delivers the opportunity to back Sean Doolittle and Trevor Rosenthal with Kimbrel at a manageable rate for a club only focused on the World Series. Thanks to Doolittle’s low cost and high effectiveness, just 3.97 percent of the team’s payroll is dedicated to closers, according to Spotrac. The team holds a more-than-reasonable $6.5 million option on Doolittle for 2020. Rosenthal’s contract is layered with incentives following his return from Tommy John surgery. The club also holds a $14 million 2020 option on Rosenthal. That provides flexibility to offer Kimbrel two years plus an option at a high average annual value to counter the brief length of the contract. Not enough? Three-plus-one could also be considered since both Rosenthal and Doolittle are scheduled to be off the books after the 2020 season.
For Kimbrel, he would join a team -- on paper -- which appears primed to return to the playoffs. He would be paid well. Sharing “save” opportunities by being deployed when matching up best, an approach also applicable to Doolittle and Rosenthal, will not inhibit his future valuation. Availability and flexibility are increasingly paramount. Everyone already knows Kimbrel can close games. Two seasons as part of a potent trio wouldn’t loosen that fact. He could also re-enter the market in his age-33 season. Another contract would be on the horizon following an offseason when replicating Kenley Jansen’s five-year, $80 million deal appears out of reach.
Spreading the work around would also benefit him, Doolittle and Rosenthal. The latter will be watched diligently following his Tommy John surgery. Doolittle navigated a strange foot injury last season which seemed an acute, one-off situation. However, he’s long battled with his shoulder. Kimbrel has moved into his 30s. Part of the Nationals’ pitch to him could include the idea he will be paid a lot to do less.
Why him instead of Harper? Flexibility and flush positioning. A short-term commitment to Kimbrel -- relative to a decade-long Harper buy-in -- keeps the Nationals’ opportunity for payroll maneuvering intact. It keeps Anthony Rendon’s possible extension in the clear. It doesn’t add to an already filled outfield at an exorbitant price. It’s a season-long aid which gains added importance in the postseason.
Mike Rizzo stated this offseason’s roster building focused on providing Martinez options. Here’s the final step to give him everything he could want, a reboot of the Law Firm of Kintzler, Madson and Doolittle, just with more high-powered members.
In order to be an organization that goes for it, you have to do just that. Here’s a chance to do so.
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