Are closers worth big investments?

Kimbrel deal re-ignites debate over value of closers.

The Braves are banking on Craig Kimbrel remaining healthy and productive.

Daniel Shirey / USA TODAY Sports

It's a baseball argument that will never end. The Braves' signing of Craig Kimbrel to a four-year, $42 million extension on Sunday only reignited the debate over the value of closers.

"Much more downside than upside," one rival executive said of the deal.

"When closers go, they go quickly," another exec said, citing the decline of Jonathan Papelbon.

Well, Kimbrel is a lot younger than Papelbon was at the time Papelbon left the Red Sox to sign a four-year, $50 million free-agent contract with the Phillies.

Kimbrel's deal covers ages 26 to 29, and the Braves hold a $13 million option for his age 30 season. Papelbon's contract, on the other hand, covers ages 31 to 34.

The problem for the Braves is that relievers are volatile, and that Kimbrel soon might peak, if he hasn't already. But what was the alternative for the club?

The Braves did not want to trade Kimbrel. If they had lost to him in arbitration and continued going year to year, he would have earned $9 million this season, and possibly $12 million and $15 million after that.

Under his new deal, he will earn $8 million, $9 million and $11 million in his arbitration years. The Braves bought out a year of his free agency at $13 million and could buy out another at the same salary. Even at the high end, his deal is not unreasonable for an elite closer.

Kimbrel, in six professional seasons, never has been on the disabled list. The Braves know him better than anyone, and they love his work ethic and approach.

Like any pitcher, he could fade or blow out at any moment -- hence, the "more downside than upside" argument. But for the Braves, who plan to remain contenders as they move toward the opening of their new ballpark in 2017, he is an essential piece.

SPEAKING OF THAT NEW PARK . . .

In a span of 13 days, the Braves have committed $222.7 million in extensions for Kimbrel, first baseman Freddie Freeman, outfielder Jason Heyward and right-hander Julio Teheran. An extension for shortstop Andrelton Simmons also is possible, but -- as first reported by Joel Sherman of the New York Post -- the two sides differ on Simmons' projected offensive value.

Where is all this money coming from?

The Braves are seven years into one of the worst local TV deals in sports, a 20-year deal that reportedly pays them only between $10 million and $20 million per season.

The new ballpark, however, was a game-changer, providing "a lot of the impetus" for the team's recent spending, according to general manager Frank Wren.

"Once that was established in November, we knew we were going to have the ability to be more competitive payroll-wise," Wren said. "We immediately started planning how to keep the core of the team together."

Timing often is everything with such deals. The Braves showed foresight with Teheran, one rival exec said, but should have acted sooner on Freeman and others. Perhaps, but the team did not have the grasp of its long-term financial picture a year ago that it does now.

The Diamondbacks got ahead of the market with first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, signing him last March to a five-year, $32 million extension that started with his final season before arbitration. Goldschmidt, though, had not had a breakout season at the time.

Could the Braves have locked up Freeman a year ago for a similar price? Maybe. Freeman ended up with an eight-year, $135 million contract when he was further along in service time (as a first-year arbitration player) and in his career (coming off an .897 OPS that ranked seventh in the NL). 

THE DEMPSTER EFFECT

Right-hander Ryan Dempster presented the Red Sox with a $13.25 million gift Sunday when he announced that he would sit out the season and forfeit his salary.

Some immediately speculated that the Red Sox could now re-sign free-agent shortstop Stephen Drew. But in truth, the decision on Drew does not simply involve money.

If the Sox keep Drew, they will lose the compensation pick they would receive if he signed with another club. They also will be forced to divide playing time among Drew, shortstop Xander Bogaerts and third baseman Will Middlebrooks.

Maybe that decision wouldn't be so difficult -- Bogaerts is a budding star while Middlebrooks lost his job twice last season, first to Jose Iglesias, then to Bogaerts. The Sox could trade Middlebrooks, play Bogaerts at third for two years, then move him to short when third-base prospect Garin Cecchini is ready.

On the other hand, Middlebrooks hasn't exactly been a slouch in his first 615 major league at-bats, batting .254 with a .756 OPS, 32 homers and 103 RBI. His type of right-handed power is in short supply. Cecchini, a left-handed hitter, might not hit for enough power to profile at third base.

Re-signing Drew would enable the Red Sox to avoid relying on three young regulars -- Bogaerts, Middlebrooks and center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. But the Sox also could redirect the savings to a second-tier, free-agent starting pitcher. Or, they could preserve their resources until the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe mentioned left-hander Chris Capuano as a possibility, but such a move probably is not necessary. The Sox like their rotation depth behind veterans Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront.

Some in the organization believe that right-hander Brandon Workman could be a quality starter right now. The Triple-A rotation is expected to include right-handers Allen Webster, Matt Barnes and Anthony Ranaudo. And lefty Henry Owens, the organization's top pitching prospect, according to Baseball America, figures to open at Double-A.

If everyone in the major league rotation were healthy, the signing of another veteran starter likely would push Doubront to the bullpen -- a questionable move, considering that Doubront might be better than Peavy and is more durable than Buchholz.

A KINDER, GENTLER A.J.

In 1999, when I was a sports columnist for The (Baltimore) Sun, I attended the Orioles' introductory news conference for Albert Belle, who had just signed a five-year, $65 million free-agent contract.

Belle handled himself well, and afterward our city columnist in attendance acted as if Belle's history of churlish behavior suddenly had been erased.

"He seems charming," the columnist said.

I did not respond out of respect to a more senior writer, but privately recalled something that I had heard at the start of my career: "They all sound great at the press conference."

Which brings me to right-hander A.J. Burnett, and his introductory news conference with the Phillies on Sunday.

Burnett sounded great -- legitimately great. His desire to be close to his family in Monkton, Md., was part of it. But for those of us who recall the young, petulant Burnett, his maturity at 37 is rather striking.

Yes, Burnett confirmed he was upset when the Pirates chose rookie Gerrit Cole over him in Game 5 of last year's Division Series against the Cardinals. But he downplayed the snub as a factor in his decision and spoke of his two years with the Pirates as a turning point in his career.

"I found who I was again, I guess," Burnett said. "I will never put myself in the same category as a (Roy) Halladay, ever. But as far as mentor-wise and player relations-wise, I became that guy over there.

"I never really looked at myself as that guy. But as soon as I walked through that door, I was. I didn't have a say in it. It showed me who I was, who I could have been for a long time that I wasn't."

What did he learn from Halladay when they were teammates with the Blue Jays?

"Coming up, I didn't keep a book. I didn't watch video. I threw hard, and that's all I ever cared about," Burnett said. "You get around somebody who lives it, who loves it . . . Roy Halladay made me realize what I'm here for.

"It's just not to go out and be A.J., be a major league baseball player. It's helping the young kids. It's leading by example. It's doing more when maybe you did less."

Phillies outfielder Marlon Byrd, who was Burnett's teammate with the Pirates in the final month of last season, said the pitcher "was the ultimate leader over there. He'd give a look, and that's all it took. It would be a full conversation, just from a look."

Byrd said that Burnett also talked mechanics, watched other pitchers' bullpen sessions, encouraged them to come to the park early. Burnett, according to Byrd, would tell a pitcher such as right-hander Charlie Morton, "You're filthy. No, you don't get it. You're filthy. Amazing."

"He would instill that confidence in those guys, tell 'em over and over," Byrd said.

Yes, they all sound great at the press conference, but Burnett's actions speak louder than his words. Perhaps it's fitting that he will continue wearing No. 34 -- Halladay's number -- with the Phils.

A BIT OF PROTECTION

This item is so confusing, I’ve re-written it three times now. But I’m trying again, because it shows how agents in the future may attempt to insulate players from qualifying offers.

Burnett, represented by Darek Braunecker, signed a deal that can be viewed as either one year, $16 million, or two years, $23.5 million. The unusual structure also gives him alternatives if he wishes to avoid a qualifying offer next off-season.

Here’s how his deal works, according to a source: Burnett will earn a $15 million salary this season, and his mutual option for 2015 also is worth $15 million. If either side declines, he will receive a $1 million buyout (unless he cashes all of his performance bonuses, at which point he will forfeit the $1 million).

On the other hand, if Burnett qualifies for the buyout, he then can exercise a player option for $7.5 million that could escalate to $12.75 million, based upon how much he pitches.

The guess here is that Burnett will exercise his end of the $15 million mutual option if he has a good season, citing all the reasons he gave for choosing the Phillies (family, etc). The Phillies could decline their end, but likely would not bother if they intended to make him a qualifying offer, which likely will be near $15 million, anyway. They also could owe him an additional $1 million – the buyout - if that was their decision.

Heck, even if the Phillies made Burnett a qualifying offer, he still could receive interest on a one-year deal. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said he would have considered Burnett even if he had been stuck with a draft pick (the Phils’ first rounder is protected).

Burnett’s deal also includes $1.75 million in performance bonuses each year and a 20-team no-trade list. Burnett can earn a maximum of $33.5 million if the mutual option is exercised and he makes 30 starts both seasons.

 

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