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One Last Move: Craig Kimbrel

The Mets could use another reliever heading into 2019. Why not sign the best reliever left on the market?

MLB: World Series-Boston Red Sox at Los Angeles Dodgers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to One Last Move, where our writers pitch a move to the Mets that would close out their off-season and make the team better in 2019.

As things currently stand, the Mets bullpen looks to be much better in 2019 than it was this past season. They’ve added arguably the best reliever in the game in Edwin Diaz, a solid set-up option in Jeurys Familia, and a middle-relief option with no shortage of high-leverage experience in Justin Wilson this offseason. Add those three acquisitions to a bullpen that already had right-handers Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo and you end up with a group that has a very good chance to perform better in 2019 than their counterparts from a season ago.

While the 2019 Mets bullpen looks to be much better than last year’s model, that isn’t really saying much, considering the team’s bullpen has ranked dead last and second to last in the National league by ERA in each of the last two seasons respectively. The team seems likely to break camp with at least one of Jacob Rhame, Daniel Zamora, Eric Hanhold, Luis Avilan, or Hector Santiago projected to log significant innings. While all of the pitchers listed above certainly deserve big league time at some point during the upcoming season, their presence in the discussion for the opening day roster probably says more about the bullpen’s relative lack of depth than it’s improvement from last season. They all have upside or potential big-league utility, but they all also come with more than their fair share of risks, especially for a team that has designs on competing to win its division in the upcoming season. If the Mets are truly serious about being contenders, let alone division favorites, they should probably think about bringing in at least one more proven big-league caliber reliever to add much needed depth to their bullpen, and potentially help get outs in high-leverage situations.

Fortunately for the Mets, one such reliever is not only still available at this point in the offseason, but he also happens to be arguably the best reliever to hit the market in the last few seasons. His name is Craig Kimbrel, and he’d make an excellent addition to the Mets bullpen for the 2019 season, especially if he can be signed to a below-market contract, either in terms of duration or average annual value.

While the Mets don’t need a closer, having acquired arguably the best closer in the game in Edwin Diaz earlier in the offseason, Kimbrel would certainly held add both depth and elite talent to the back end of the Mets bullpen in 2019, assuming of course that he would be willing to sign with a team in which he wouldn’t be the closer. In an era in which strict bullpen roles are quickly becoming a thing of the past, teams should care way more about having as many good relief pitchers as possible instead of who is going to be tasked with closing out games. A trio of Diaz, Kimbrel, and Familia would definitely project to be among the best late-relief trios in baseball, regardless of which of the three is on the mound when the game ends.

With all of the recent talk about Kimbrel remaining a free agent this deep into the offseason, it’s easy to forget just how ridiculously good at striking hitters out he is. Since entering the league with the Braves in 2010, Kimbrel has struck out opponents at a nearly unprecedented level, having ranked among the top ten relievers in baseball by strikeout percentage in every season since 2011. Kimbrel has never had a season in which he struck out fewer than 13 batters per nine innings, and has struck out a higher percentage of the hitters he’s faced between the 2015 and 2018 season than any other pitcher in baseball. Kimbrel remains one of only two pitchers (Aroldis Chapman being the other) to have struck out 50% or more of the hitters they faced in a season in which they threw more than 40 innings. He achieved this feat in 2012 while pitching for the Braves, and came within a percentage point of doing it again in 2017 while pitching for the Red Sox, when he struck out 49.6% of the hitters he faced across 69.0 innings.

Kimbrel has posted elite strikeout rates since entering the league in 2010.

His gaudy strikeout rates are also backed up by virtually every underlying contact and plate discipline statistic there is. Even in a slightly down year in 2018, Kimbrel posted the lowest contact percentage in the league among relief pitchers, and his 17.2% swinging strike rate ranked fifth among qualified relievers. The strikeouts do come with their fair share of walks, as both his career 9.8% walk rate and last season’s 12.6% walk rate can attest to, but he gets more than enough swings and misses to compensate for his sometimes shaky command.

With Kimbrel’s track record of elite performance comes some risks, which are at least partially to blame, along with a hefty asking price for his services, for Kimbrel still being available after the start of spring training. After posting one of the best seasons from a reliever of all-time in 2017, Kimbrel had a slightly down year in 2018. Kimbrel posted a 2.74 ERA and 3.13 FIP in 62.1 innings last season, and saw his walk rate more than double from the elite 5.5% that he posted the year prior. Kimbrel also had problems with keeping the ball in the park in 2018, as he allowed a career high 1.01 home runs per nine innings during the season, which was just a hair below the league average rate of 1.08 for relief pitchers. This is relatively worrisome, as high home-run rates are a well-known characteristic of pitchers who give up as many fly balls as Kimbrel does, but it was also buoyed by a slightly above average 12.7 HR/FB%. His critics also point to his diminished velocity as another potential red flag for Kimbrel’s prospects going forward, as his average fastball velocity dropped by about 1 MPH from 2017 to 2018. But, Kimbrel has had similar small dips in his velocity at other times in his career, as seen in the chart below, and has always been able to regain the velocity he lost with time.

Kimbrel’s average four-seam fastball velocity in 2018 was down about 1 MPH, but was still well above-average.

In any event, his fastball velocity is still well above average even with the missing MPH, and it should continue to pair extremely well with his absolutely devastating knuckle-curveball going forward.

While we should all hope, for the sake of the game, that Kimbrel gets a contract that is close to what he deserves before the season officially begins, the Mets should be ready to pounce if he lowers his asking price or considers taking a one-year pillow contract to rebuild his value following a down 2018 season. If the league continues to ignore a pitcher of Kimbrel’s caliber who is just waiting to be signed, and the asking price for his services continues to drop into a more affordable range, the Mets should definitely try to bring the elite reliever to Flushing for the 2019 season.