The 2018 Atlanta Braves bullpen wasn’t all bad. It also certainly wasn’t good. It was an Achilles’ heel that, despite additions of Jonny Venters and Brad Brach, never seemed to improved beyond a league average pen at best. Unlike many teams, the Braves didn’t rely on their bullpen an extraordinary amount – its 557 innings pitched in 2018 was the ninth fewest. But no matter how light of a load the team put on the pen, it never seemed to excel.
While the middle relief took its lumps, the crew in the ninth inning didn’t help matters. Atlanta finished with 40 saves, good for 16th. It was the fewest saves by a team that went to the playoffs. With Arodys Vizcaino a health risk and a year away from free agency while A.J. Minter may not be ready for a primary closer job, Atlanta has been attached to many closers on this year’s market. And while I’ll talk later about my fundamental disagreement with paying massive salaries in a long-term deal to closers, it does make sense why the Braves would be fits for the top closers on the market.
Who are those closers? Similar to the catcher position, rather than focus on just one each for a free agent piece, I want to look at the market as a whole. I’m focusing on established closers for this piece rather than guys who could be value picks to take over the closer role.
Craig Kimbrel – Despite spending the last four years elsewhere, Kimbrel remains #1 on the franchise leaderboards for saves in Braves’ history. One year after his best season since the trade, Kimbrel had the worst FIP of his career in 2018. Being uber-excellent your entire career means that a 3.13 FIP is a new worst. His control issues that disappeared in 2017 resurfaced this year with a 12.6% walk rate, the second-worst mark during a single season for Kimbrel. The worst mark came in 2016. He still struck out a ton of hitters and hit the 40-save mark for the first time since 2014. He also gave up a career-worst seven homers. Boston extended a qualifying offer. That means that signing Kimbrel will cost the Braves their second-round pick – a price that no other reliever on the market carries.
Jeurys Familia – Over the last four seasons, Familia has quietly been one of the best relievers in baseball. That does include a brief suspension for a domestic violence arrest (charges were later dropped) and surgery to deal with a clot in his right shoulder during 2017. Outside of that injury/suspension-shortened season, Familia has pitched in at least 70+ games in three of the last four years with a FIP of 3.07 or lower and an ERA no higher than 3.13. He doesn’t get huge strikeout numbers, though has just over a strikeout an inning during his career. He does get a lot of groundballs, though, except for 2018 when a move to less sinkers and more sliders likely brought his groundball rate under 50% for the first time since an eight-game cameo in 2012. It was still 46.3%, though.
Zach Britton – One of the game’s best closers from 2014-16 after a move out of the starting rotation, Britton has seen his saves numbers muted the last couple of seasons by injuries, Brad Brach, and a trade to the Yankees. The Britton of 2015 and 2016 was as dominant as any reliever in baseball with an ERA closer to 1.00 than 2.00 and a FIP under 2.00. He hasn’t been nearly as sharp since injuries sapped him of much of his wonderful control.
Cody Allen – Often overshadowed by Andrew Miller’s exploits the last few years, Allen has been the guy mostly getting saves. In fact, he has 147 of them over the last five years. Like most of the free agent closers on this list, he was most effective in the year or two before last season rather than the season right before free agency. His issues with declining control and gopher balls prompted the Indians to acquire Brad Hand last season to take over ninth-inning duties down the stretch as Allen’s ERA ballooned to 4.70, by the far the worst total of his career.
David Robertson – Durable and underrated, Robertson has passed the 60-game mark in every season since 2010. In fact, only three pitchers have pitched more often than Robertson over the last nine seasons. After one year as the Yankees closer in 2014, Robertson signed with the White Sox before 2015 and was great as their closer before being traded back to he Bronx as a highly-paid setup guy. Since 2011, his ERA has ranged between 1.08 and 3.47 while his FIP, outside of a 3.58 mark in 2016, has been no higher than 2.97.
Joakim Soria – An All-Star with the Royals once, Soria was sidetracked by injuries that limited him to just 74 games from 2012-15. Since then, however, he has returned to a fairly durable right-hand arm and sometimes closer. More of a short-term hired gun at this point, Soria strikeout and walk rates both trended positive compared to his career norms last season, showing no sign of decline.
Bud Norris – A former Braves fill-in back in 2016, Bud Norris re-invented himself as a reliever first with the Angels and then last season with the Cardinals, saving nearly 50 games over the last two seasons after no saves since his first year of minor league ball in 2006. His resurgence is largely due to the same thing that aided C.C. Sabathia and Anibal Sanchez when their careers looked over as Norris began to rely on his cutter. The result is an exit velocity that has dropped three ticks in MPH while the launch angle has only increased. Weaker-hit flyballs leads to better outcomes.
You could include guys like Sergio Romo, Ryan Madson, and Kelvin Herrera, but I had the draw the line somewhere.
Like any position, we start this discussion by looking at the best player available and the kind of contract he might earn. Doing so helps us find the max contract available and help sort the other contracts by value based on their ranking this winter.
Without a doubt, Craig Kimbrel remains the top closer available. Even Kimbrel’s own representation paints him as such – even going so far to market him as the best closer of all-time. New York Yankees fans scoff at the idea, but it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. Mariano Rivera had a career 2.06 ERA and 2.67 FIP. Kimbrel has a 1.91 career ERA with a 1.96 FIP. Rivera has about 300 more saves than Kimbrel in about 550 more games, but selling teams on Kimbrel as the best closer of all-time isn’t as difficult as we might have once thought.
However, that’s a novelty. You’re not signing Kimbrel for his accolades that he earned during his 20’s. He has already been paid for that. What you are forking over a lot of dough for is his early 30’s. And there lies the problem for a lot of general managers because they have to make a few bets that rarely work out for teams. First, they are betting Kimbrel will continue to be a rare closer who doesn’t get hurt. Aside from a brief trip to the DL in 2016, Kimbrel has been remarkably durable. He still reached 57 games pitched in 2016. At a certain point, that durability can’t continue. Can it?
The second main thing with Kimbrel is effectiveness. Most closers decline in their 30’s. They begin to lose velocity and possibly their breaking pitches aren’t quite as sharp. I shouldn’t even categorize it as “closers” as it’s most “pitchers.” Teams have to believe that, when they offer a closer around 30 a contract with four-to-six seasons, that the pitcher has a good chance earning that paycheck near the back-end of the deal.
What do recent contracts tell us that elite closers should be paid? During the 2016-17 offseason, Aroldis Chapman ($86 million, 5 years) and Kenley Jansen ($80 million, 5 years) give us somewhat of a baseline to look for, but both closers were two years younger than Kimbrel when they hit the market. Mark Melancon is another case as he was a year older than Kimbrel, but received $62 million over four years the same winter as Chapman and Jansen. And last offseason, Wade Davis got $52 milion over three seasons – while also a year older than Kimbrel. All of these contracts led the market to invest at least four years and between $15 million and $17.3 million. Jansen’s deal is especially noteworthy because, again, Kimbrel is being marketed as the best closer of all time. It would stand to reason that the best should also be paid the best.
MLB Trade Rumors recently predicted that Kimbrel would get $70 million over four seasons – assuming that Kimbrel would break the annual value record, held by Davis, but not the overall value. I think he’ll do both on this market with so many teams flush with cash and willing to spend. While the $17.5M yearly salary is certainly reasonable, I like round numbers so my prediction is $90 million over five years.
Now, quickly, let’s rank the other four closers based on factors such as performance and age. Here are my contract predictions as a result:
- Jeurys Familia – $48 million, four years
- Zach Britton – $33 million, three years
- David Robertson – $21 million, two years with a third year option
- Cody Allen – $18 million, two years with a third year option
- Joakim Soria – $17 million, two years
- Bud Norris – $7 million, one year
I’m sure some will consider these numbers too low while others will consider them too high. Obviously, this early in the market, it’s difficult to know what baselines may look like until players start to sign deals. But I think these deals are reasonable expectations.
Typically, I do a full case why the Braves should sign a player and why they shouldn’t. But with so many names here, I’m going to simply go with a brief pro/con look.
Craig Kimbrel – He might be the best closer of all time. It’s not as ridiculous as many might think. With 542 games in his career, he’s picked up 333 saves with a career 1.91 ERA and 19 fWAR. If you predict, because he’ll turn 31 next May, that he continues at a high level for another three or so years before beginning to taper off some while remaining productive into his upper 30’s, it’s not impossible to see 500 or 600 or maybe many more saves. But they’re are two problems and both are tied into his age. On a general front, the averages are heavily weighted against him remaining both durable and elite into his mid-30’s. On a more personal side, his two worst seasons came in the last three years. Now, his worst is still pretty damn good and it’s nit-picking to act like a FIP around 3.00 with a strikeout rate near 40% is somehow alarming. Nevertheless, these are the kind of things you must consider when investing twice the GDP of Tuvalu. Oh, you didn’t think you’d get a geography lesson, did you?
Jeurys Familia – Once you strip away the injury and controversy, Familia is one of the best arms available. He was nearly unbeatable in 2015-16 and found his mojo once against last season. A rarity for a closer, Familia flashes tremendous control and a historically high groundball rate. That makes up for good, but not flashy strikeout rates. The injury, by the way, was a blockage in his posterior humeral circumflex artery. Or his shoulder. Once repaired and healthy, Familia was back to his usual self. There is, though, the controversy which began when he was arrested on a domestic violence charge around Halloween in 2016. Less than two months later, the charge was dismissed and the arrest expunged. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said, while acknowledging that Familia’s conduct was inappropriate, the evidence “does not support a determination that Mr. Familia physically assaulted his wife or threatened her or others with physical force or harm.” Nevertheless, he received a 15-game suspension. In these hyper-sensitive times, these events need to be considered. Should it affect the Braves’ interest in Familia?
Zach Britton – There was a time when Britton was one of the most dominant closers in baseball. Like an even better Familia, he lived off easy outs beat into the ground with regularity, great control, and good enough strikeout numbers. He was truly excellent. But over the last two seasons, he’s been hurt often and not nearly as effective. Following a trade to the Yankees last summer, the same problems continued. Britton has often been connected to the Braves, but why? Potentially, it’s the idea that you are buying low on a high-end talent. One thing to also consider with Britton is that he’s a lefthander and the Braves not only already have A.J. Minter and Jesse Biddle, two of their best relief prospects – Corbin Clouse and Thomas Burrows – are also southpaws.
David Robertson – One thing to remember is that Robertson never lost his job as a closer. He wasn’t relegated to middle relief, he was sent to a team with a pretty good closer. Durability is Robertson’s reputation, but he goes well beyond that. This is a guy with a career 2.88 ERA and 2.81 FIP to match it. He also never complained when, after working so long as Mariano Rivera’s understudy, he no longer was closing games. But there is a big elephant in the room with Robertson. He’ll turn 34 next April. How long can he continue to be an effective late-inning option in the majors?
Cody Allen – One of the quietest names on this list, Allen has been durable and largely effective over the last six years. However, nearly 70 games a year can take it out of you Allen’s velocity was down a tick in 2018. Of course, losing a little bit of velocity isn’t that huge of a deal, but as a buyer, you worry about these things. That said, even with the decrease in velocity, Cody Allen’s fastball still has one of the top spin rates in baseball at 2506 RPM. The average is a bit below 2300 RPM, by the way. It’s why Allen’s fastball remains a top pitch. The far bigger concern is that his curveball was as inconsistent as ever. It might seem like a small thing, but Allen’s curveball had an opposing wRC+ of 71 this season. During his career, hitters have a 21 wRC+ against it. During Allen’s most dominant years (2014-16), opposing hitters had wRC+ of -10, -2, -1. Regression is to be taken seriously and Allen’s curveball issues might become a problem that only gets worse now that he’s in his 30’s.
Joakim Soria – The Top 5 Relievers in FIP over the last two seasons are Roberto Osuna, Will Smith, Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, and Soria. That’s the good part. However, Soria’s ERA in that same time frame is over a run higher than Kimbrel’s. Is some of that playing for bad teams like the Royals and White Sox? Probably, but there may be something a bit more at work here with Soria that is hidden a little in his 220 career saves. Soria has good metrics, but may not be as good of a pitcher and yes, that does happen. For Braves fans, Jim Johnson is a classic example. He had solid metrics, but wilted when he was most needed. To highlight that, let’s look at Win Probability Added. The math behind it is a little complicated and I encourage you to read Fangraphs’ description, but the basic idea of WPA is to find how much a player contributes or hurts his team’s chances of winning using win expectancy for each at-bat. Remember how Soria is in the Top 5 among relievers in FIP over the last two years? Well, the Top 5 in WPA includes Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, Felipe Vazquez, Edwin Diaz, and Corey Knebel. So, no Soria. To find Soria, you have to go #61. Jesse Biddle, in one year, is #67 over a two-year sample. I tend to not overvalue WPA, but with relievers, it’s one of those skills that can’t be overlooked – especially when we see yearly returns that match up.
Bud Norris – The one-time Brave has been effective, though not the shutdown option teams seek for late inning assignments. Consider that Norris has always been homer prone – a problem that suddenly didn’t disappear after a move to the bullpen. If anything, the problem is worse as his HR/FB has been about 17% the last two years as a reliever. That’s about 5% over his career norm. Homers are part of the reason the Braves didn’t rely on Jesse Biddle in the playoffs – his rate is nearly identical, though we give him a pass because it’s less of a sample size. And then there is the news that Norris was former Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny’s boy, leading to Norris harrassing Jordan Hicks – and ultimately leading to Matheny’s dismissal as manager. Do the Braves really want a guy who considers it his job to haze and “teach” younger players the way to play the game?
My Two Cents: I have to admit – I’m not fond of signing relievers to long-term deals with huge amounts of money invested. A lot of those contracts I mentioned earlier to set a market for Kimbrel already look poor. Wade Davis had his worst season since he was a Royals starter in 2013. Kenley Jansen became more hittable than ever, losing 14% off his K-rate. Aroldis Chapman’s fastball, which averaged 99.5 mph to 100.4, was the slowest it has been since 2013 (still pretty damn fast, though). Mark Melancon, who had four straight 70+ appearance seasons before signing with the Giants, has pitched 73 times combined the last two seasons. Brad Lidge, Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, B.J. Ryan – they all signed deals the team would later wish they could take back.
Personally, I love Kimbrel. I remember watching him as a member of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. And certainly, if the Braves have a blank check from Liberty Media, you bring Kimbrel back home and roll the dice that he remains the durable elite reliever that he has always been before. But the Braves don’t have a blank check. While next year’s payroll is unknown – it’s supposed to rise from its $120-$130 million max the last few years – an investment of nearly $20 million into a reliever is simply a price that is too rich to pay.
For me, the guy to prioritize becomes David Robertson. Yes, he’s old, but I don’t hate that fact, to be honest. A older arm means he’s less likely to demand long-term dollars. Robertson isn’t Kimbrel. He’s probably not even Familia. But he might be the best fit for what the Braves are looking for.
Certainly, Atlanta could skip the closer market all together and focus on middle relief arms with a higher chance to bring similar value for reduced wages. That’s certainly something to consider. But when it comes to the these seven relievers, Robertson seems like the only player who truly fits for the Braves.