Best Potential Trade Packages and Landing Spots for Braves Closer Craig Kimbrel

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterDecember 13, 2013

Best Potential Trade Packages and Landing Spots for Braves Closer Craig Kimbrel

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    The very thought of trading Craig Kimbrel can't help but rile up Atlanta Braves fans.

    Although it's not necessarily even an actual rumor, the concept of trading baseball's best closer—as suggested recently by Buster Olney of ESPN (subscription required) merely as speculation—is just the kind of proposition that is, in a word, divisive.

    Olney writes:

    The Tampa Bay Rays have been collecting information this week in their trade conversations about starter David Price, because eventually they will have to trade him. They drafted Price, they developed Price, they love Price, and he is a team leader, but they will move him because of a simple math equation: He will soon make too much money for them to afford. 

    If they trade him this offseason, they will get strong value in return. If they wait, their trade return -- as well as their payroll flexibility in 2014 -- will be diminished, because Price is moving closer to the time he can become a free agent, after the 2015 season. 

    The Atlanta Braves should be taking notes on all this, because they have a player who fits this description and these circumstances. Someone they drafted and developed, someone they love, a team leader -- and someone who is soon going to be too expensive for their relatively modest payroll: Craig Kimbrel, the best closer on the planet. 

    They should be looking to trade him, and right now might be the best possible time. 

    So take a borderline unhittable 25-year-old closer with a whopping 138 saves the past three seasons and an ERA of 1.39, a WHIP of 0.90 and a strikeout rate of 15.1 for his career...and make him available?

    To be clear, this is simply a possible scenario that the Braves could—and maybe, just maybe, should—consider. For a few reasons.

    Take, for example, Kimbrel's salary, which is about to skyrocket from $655,000 in 2013 to a projection somewhere in the range of $7-$8 million for 2014—that's a tenfold increase—now that he's eligible for his first go at arbitration.

    (That projection, by the way, comes from Matt Swartz at MLB Trade Rumors, who essentially admitted that Kimbrel's performance and statistics over the first three full years of his career more or less broke the model for calculating his salary. In Swartz's own words: "It is our suspicion that he will land much closer to the $7.25MM we have projected for him than the high number the model produced, which I might as well confess was actually $10.2MM.")

    Consider also that Kimbrel's salary will only escalate from there until he hits free agency after the 2016 season, and the Braves—who have maintained a payroll in the $90 million range the past five years—aren't exactly the kind of franchise that can easily afford to spend $12-15 million a year on a closer. Not when they have a handful of other young stars, like Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Mike Minor, Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran, who also will need to be paid soon enough.

    Essentially, the Braves "problem" here is that Kimbrel actually has been too good too soon, if that makes sense.

    And then there's the basic fact that a reliever, even the best one in the entire sport like Kimbrel, just does not have a chance to make a dynamic overall impact on any one game when he throws 15-20 pitches at a time—let alone over a full season when he throws 70 innings a year.

    Remember, it was a little more than two months ago that the Braves completed a season-long domination of the NL East by clinching the No. 2 spot in the National League playoffs. And remember, in their first-round series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, manager Fredi Gonzalez chose not to use Kimbrel in a key spot of Game 4—with the Braves up 3-2 but trailing two games to one—in part because it was only the bottom of the eighth inning. And you remember how that turned out, right?

    With David Carpenter, a lesser arm, surrendering the series-winning home run to Juan Uribe before Kimbrel even got a chance to step on the mound. In all, Kimbrel made just one appearance in those four games, throwing only 25 pitches against all of five batters to register four outs.

    For a team that hasn't won a single series in October since 2001, perhaps the idea of trading Kimbrel for players who can have a bigger impact isn't such a terrible idea.

    On that topic, then, even though the Braves are a well-constructed team with an extremely productive and promising young core, they still have areas that could be upgraded or addressed, primarily second base, catcher, center field and the rotation. And since Atlanta already has right-hander Jordan Walden, who has closed in the past, he would be at least a serviceable replacement.

    Finding potential trade partners isn't easy. The Braves, after all, are contenders, as are most clubs that might inquire about the luxury provided by a top-notch ninth-inning arm like Kimbrel. It's often a challenge to match up contender-contender trades, because both parties are playing for the immediate future rather than the long term.

    That doesn't mean, though, there aren't possible fits out there. With that in mind, let's see if we can do the impossible and come up with a few landing spots and trade packages that actually might get the Braves—and their fans—to at least consider the concept of trading Kimbrel.

New York Yankees

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    The Proposal

    OF Brett Gardner, C J.R. Murphy, OF Mason Williams for Kimbrel


    Why It Could Work for the Braves

    Gardner is in line to be cheaper than Kimbrel for 2014, and he'd be an extremely useful piece as an option to start over—or platoon with—B.J. Upton, whose first year in Atlanta went about as badly as possible. Plus, Gardner's excellent defense would allow him to back up either corner outfield spot, and his strong leadoff skills and baserunning would provide something the Braves sorely lack at the moment.

    Even though he's a free agent after 2014, that's not necessarily a bad thing here, as long as Upton regains some of his game. And if not, then Williams, a 22-year-old who is coming off a mediocre 2013 but ranks as one of the Yankees' top prospects, could be considered the center fielder of the future.

    Murphy, meanwhile, is a highly regarded catching prospect who could be teamed with fellow big league-ready youngster Christian Bethancourt to allow both of them to learn the ropes without having to take on too much at once.


    Why It Could Work for the Yankees

    How do you replace the greatest closer of all time? How about with the guy who is the greatest closer in the game right now?

    The Yankees have indicated they have reservations about setup man David Robertson's ability to fill Mariano Rivera's cleats, but there would be no such doubts about Kimbrel doing so. Plus, it's not like the Yankees couldn't afford to pay Kimbrel going forward.

Los Angeles Dodgers

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    The Proposal

    OF Joc Pederson and RHP Zach Lee for Kimbrel


    Why It Could Work for the Braves

    A 21-year-old lefty hitter who smacked 22 homers and swiped 31 bases at Double-A in 2013, Pederson is one of the top prospects—if not, the top prospect—in the Dodgers system. He should be ready to contribute at the big league level by midseason next year, which could give Atlanta enough time to see if Upton can put himself back together.

    Lee is a former first-round pick who spent all of last year at Double-A with Pederson, posting a 3.22 ERA with an 8.3 K/9 over 142.2 innings. The right-hander is not a high-end arm but looks to be less than half a season away from working as a durable middle-of-the-rotation starter. Given the injury concerns with righty Brandon Beachy and relative inexperience of lefty Alex Wood, Lee would provide quality depth.


    Why It Could Work for the Dodgers

    OK, so the Dodgers aren't exactly hurting for a closer, what with Kenley Jansen in the ninth and Brian Wilson in the eighth. But imagine a back of the bullpen where those two are pitching the seventh and eighth while setting up for Kimbrel in the ninth. L.A. could call its bullpen "Opposition: Shut Down."

    Similar to the Yankees, the Dodgers would have no trouble paying eight figures for a reliever to cover one inning at a time. Heck, they just did that by giving Wilson $10 million for 2014. Plus, the club has depth in the outfield and rotation, so neither Pederson nor Lee would be missed immediately.

Los Angeles Angels

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    The Proposal

    2B Howie Kendrick and 3B Kaleb Cowart for Kimbrel (and 2B Dan Uggla?)


    Why It Could Work for the Braves

    Rumors have been following Kendrick around practically since he inked his team-friendly extension that pays him less than $20 million over the next two seasons. He's not an All-Star, but Kendrick is an above-average regular who's steady on defense and makes a lot of contact with the bat. In other words, he's the exact opposite of incumbent second baseman Uggla.

    Cowart, 21, was the Angels' top pick in 2010, but after a breakout 2012 when he hit .276/.358/.452, his performance fell off noticeably last year at Double-A (.221/.279/.301). He remains one of the organization's top prospects (albeit in a weak system), though, and has the kind of upside that might be worth gambling on as a potential replacement for Chris Johnson after 2014.


    Why It Could Work for the Angels

    The Angels bullpen has been among the worst in the sport the past few years, but adding Kimbrel to a bunch that already was improved by the signing of Joe Smith could solve what has been a serious problem area. Plus, now that the leaky rotation is in better shape with recent acquisitions Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago, L.A. wouldn't want that to go to waste.

    To replace Kendrick, the Angels would have to turn to a subpar starter like Grant Green, but they do have a pair of intriguing second base prospects in Taylor Lindsey and Alex Yarbrough down the line. Of course, it might not be out of this world to think that L.A. would accept Uggla as part of the return, if Atlanta ate a portion of the $26 million he's owed through 2015. Or would it?

Texas Rangers

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    The Proposal

    RHP Tanner Scheppers and 2B Rougned Odor for Kimbrel


    Why It Could Work for the Braves

    The hard-throwing Scheppers, who sported a 1.88 ERA and 1.07 WHIP last year, would be a late-inning replacement for Kimbrel who has an extra year of team control. He could be closer insurance in case Walden falters.

    But the real gem of this proposal would be Odor, who reached Double-A as a 19-year-old in 2013. He triple-slashed .305/.365/.474 while notching 11 homers, 41 doubles and 32 stolen bases. Odor, a native of Venezuela, likely needs at least one more full season in the minors, but he's arguably the top second base prospect in baseball and would give the Braves one of the best young up-the-middle infield duos around.


    Why It Could Work for the Rangers

    It would hurt to lose Odor, perhaps the club's No. 1 prospect, but the Rangers already have plenty of middle-infield depth with Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar locking up shortstop and second base, respectively. (They also have infielder Luis Sardinas on the come.)

    The payoff, though, would be at least three more years of the most dominant reliever there is. For a team that just lost Joe Nathan and has designs on returning to the top spot in a competitive AL West, that's a tantalizing possibility.

Seattle Mariners

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    The Proposal

    2B Nick Franklin and LHP James Paxton for Kimbrel


    Why It Could Work for the Braves

    Franklin, 22, had an up-and-down rookie season in which he hit .225/.303/.382 but also knocked 12 homers and 20 doubles in fewer than 400 at-bats. He's a switch-hitter who's much better from the left side (.727 OPS and 11 HRs), so he could form a powerful platoon with righty-swinging Uggla and eventually take over the job full-time.

    The 25-year-old Paxton is a southpaw with an above-average heater and breaking ball who tasted success in his first shot at the bigs late in 2013. Over four September starts, he allowed only four earned runs on 15 hits while whiffing 21 against only seven walks in 24 frames. He could step into Atlanta's five-man and allow fellow lefty Alex Wood to be a dynamite reliever.


    Why It Could Work for the Mariners

    In case you haven't noticed, Seattle went ahead and blocked off Franklin's path to playing time at second base—for the next 10 years. That makes him expendable. And while Paxton is slated to be in the rotation at the moment, righty Taijuan Walker is a better prospect and is ready to team with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma as a standout 1-2-3.

    The Mariners managed to get great ninth-inning work out of Danny Farquhar after previous closer Tom Wilhelmsen imploded a few times too many. Still, they just traded away righty reliever Carter Capps, so their bullpen is a bit lacking at the moment. Landing Kimbrel would be yet another signal that this Seattle club is looking to make waves and win. Now.