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Whatever happened to Craig Kimbrel?

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... Kimbrel filed for free agency. He expected the world to beat a path to his door, but in baseball as in politics the first question people have is "What have you done for us lately?"

Dick
Flavin

Do you remember Craig Kimbrel?

You know, the guy with the red beard. He used to be a baseball player. Well, I guess he still is a baseball player, but he's not playing for anyone, is he? At least, not yet.

Kimbrel, who for the last three years was the Red Sox closer, became a free agent at the end of 2018. He's still a free agent more than a quarter of the way through the current season. How can that be, you ask? After all he is the youngest pitcher in history to reach 300 saves, which he did last season at the tender age of 29 (he's currently at 330); he has been selected seven times to the all-star team; and his strikeouts per innings pitched are off the charts. Yet, he sits by the phone at home in Alabama while the games are being played -- and while many saves are being blown by a lot of teams.

What's the story? Why has that happened? Well, do you remember the post season of 2018? That's when Kimbrel really lived up to the nickname of "Cardiac Craig." In 10 2/3 innings, he had an earned run average of 5.91 and allowed 19 base runners -- 19 of them! That's almost two base runners per inning. His last game as a Red Sox was game four of the World Series. That's the game that broke the Los Angeles Dodgers' spirit. The Red Sox trailed in the seventh inning, four to zero. Then their offense exploded; by the time the Dodgers came up in the last of the ninth, the Sox had turned the game completely around and built a seemingly insurmountable lead of nine to four. Manager Alex Cora felt safe in using Kimbrel to mop up the game, but before he got even one out Kimbrel gave up a two-run homer, and suddenly the game seemed within reach for the Dodgers. Cardiac Craig managed somehow to get the three outs to end it. The Sox had survived, but Kimbrel's reputation had not. He'd been doing a high wire act throughout the playoffs and that's not a good time to flirt with disaster; the whole baseball world is watching those games -- and taking notes. The next night, with a three to one lead in games and a five to one lead in the eighth inning, Cora, with a chance to close out the World Series, chose to not put the ball into the hands of his erstwhile closer but gave it instead to Joe Kelly in the eighth and Chris Sale in the ninth. They both struck out the side while Kimbrel sat and the champagne started popping. And the baseball world took note.

After the season, Kimbrel filed for free agency. He expected the world to beat a path to his door, but in baseball, as in politics, the first question people have is "What have you done for us lately?" The answer, as everyone who'd watched the post-season knew, was, "Not much." The Red Sox took a chance and made him a qualifying offer of $17.9 million for one year; their bet being that he'd turn it down, thus making the Sox eligible for a draft pick from any team that did sign him. Sure enough Kimbrel did turn down their offer. Then, he sat back to let the bidding for his services begin. And it didn't.

His representatives had set his price at $100 million for six years. The silence was deafening. That's more than any other reliever in history has ever received. The price eventually came down to half of that in terms of both dollars and the number of years.

Still, the phone wasn't ringing in Alabama.

Now, the winter is long since over and the season is well underway. Still, he sits, waiting. The good news for Craig is that in a few weeks the baseball draft will be held and once that happens, the Red Sox will no longer be eligible for a draft pick from whoever signs him. So look for several teams to join in the bidding as soon as the draft is done. There are more than a few that desperately need help in the bullpen. But by then Kimbrel will already have lost more than two months of the baseball season and it will probably be close to another month before he's ready to pitch against majorleague hitting. His asking price will probably come down again -- significantly.

Timing is everything. If he had been eligible for free agency after the 2017 season, he'd have been a hot property. He was still at the top of his game back then. He had 35 saves, a 1.43 earned run average, and a strike out rate of 16.43 per nine innings. But that was then and this is now; and now it's a different story. His velocity was down in the second half of last year. His command was off. His ERA in the second half for 2018 was 4.57. There is nothing staler than last year's flavor of the month.

Do you suppose that, as he sits by the phone waiting for it to ring, Cardiac Craig ever regrets not taking the Red Sox's qualifying offer of $17.9 million way back last November? That, in all probability, is much more that he'll end up getting for this year from any other team; it would have given him a chance to restore his reputation and, after having a good year, file for free agency again next year. Of course, there is always the chance that his season could have ended up in the dumpster the way last year's post-season did. Still, in that worst case scenario, he'd have been able to bank the $17.9 million.

My guess is that Craig Kimbrel, in his heart of hearts, regrets turning down that qualifying offer -- and that the Red Sox are breathing a sigh of relief that he did.

Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.

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