Braves should remain force well into future

In recent years, the Atlanta Braves' farm system has grown a lot of tasty fruit: Kris Medlen arrived in 2009; Jason Heyward in 2010; Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Mike Minor in 2011; Andrelton Simmons in 2012; Julio Teheran in 2013. That's a lot of premium talent for a five-year span. With that, however, comes the corresponding problem: How are you eventually going to afford all these players?

General manager Frank Wren has signed four of those guys to long-term extensions this offseason: Heyward for two years through his arbitration years, Freeman to an eight-year deal that buys out five years of post-free agency, Teheran to a six-year deal with a club option that could buy out two years of free agency and now Kimbrel to a four-year deal with a club option that would also buy out two seasons of free agency.

Braves fans should be happy: This core group is locked up for at least two years and most of it well beyond that (Simmons wouldn't reach free agency until after the 2018 season). Even if Heyward departs after 2015, the Braves have the talent to remain competitive well into the future. ESPN Insider Jim Bowden likes the Kimbrel deal, pointing out that Kimbrel likely would have earned more on an annual basis by going through arbitration. For Kimbrel, a little less money means he's more likely to remain in Atlanta.

Martin Gandy of our Braves blog Chop County writes:

Big deals for closers and relievers have been risky business for teams in the past. Relievers are generally streaky players who can be subject to extreme good years and extreme bad years. The Braves are betting that Kimbrel's consistency will continue, and they're throwing caution to the wind that his max-effort delivery will not result in any sort of arm or shoulder problems. These are risks for any pitcher, but it seems like a good risk to take on Kimbrel, as these will be his prime years from age 26 to 29, with an option year at age 30.

The problem with comparing Kimbrel to other relievers is that he's been so dominant in his three-plus years in the big leagues, with a 1.39 career ERA, .155 batting average allowed and strikeout rate of 15.1 per nine innings.

Obviously, if he remains healthy, he should remain dominant. But is there any chance he'll drop off or decline over the next five years? Will he lose a little zip on his fastball or bite on his unhittable slider? I thought I'd do a little study, looking at some of the best closers over the past 20 years, looking at their first three years as closers and then their next five years.

Pitcher Years ERA AVG SO/9 IP

Rivera 1997-99 1.87 .210 7.0 67

2000-04 2.28 .217 8.0 70

Gagne 2002-04 1.79 .168 13.3 82

2005-09 4.28 .242 9.0 28

Papelbon 2006-08 1.70 .182 10.8 65

2009-13 2.80 .222 10.5 66

Nathan 2004-06 1.97 .176 11.9 70

2007-11 2.32 .193 10.1 50

Rodriguez 2005-07 2.38 .195 12.1 69

2008-12 3.07 .224 9.8 67

Wagner 1997-99 2.33 .181 14.6 67

2000-04 2.67 .192 10.8 60

Lidge 2003-05 2.59 .198 12.8 83

2006-10 4.16 .232 11.3 63

Cordero 2003-05 2.82 .230 10.0 74

2006-10 3.23 .238 9.4 70

Hoffman 1994-96 2.78 .191 10.5 66

1997-01 2.51 .200 10.6 71

Urbina 1997-99 2.92 .194 12.0 70

2000-04 3.45 .210 10.5 54

Benitez 1998-00 2.71 .164 13.0 74

2001-05 2.79 .198 9.4 63

OK, that's just 11 pitchers, but like Kimbrel, they all threw hard (Trevor Hoffman had a good fastball early on). I could have picked others -- guys like Brian Wilson and Bobby Jenks. Anyway, for what it's worth, 10 of the 11 had a higher ERA in the ensuing five-year span with the exception of Hoffman, who mastered his changeup. You would have to expect the same with Kimbrel; after all, it's pretty difficult to improve upon a 1.38 ERA.

There were a few injuries here, most notably Eric Gagne, who blew up after three dominant seasons that in a higher-scoring era were as impressive as Kimbrel's three years. Joe Nathan missed all of 2010 after having Tommy John surgery. Brad Lidge was inconsistent.

Physically, Kimbrel reminds me of Billy Wagner (although Wagner was left-handed), a shorter guy who generated enormous power. Wagner did suffer a torn flexor tendon in 2000 and missed much of the season. He returned to have eight more dominant seasons, although his strikeout rates weren't as high as his first three seasons.

Kimbrel's contract is probably pretty safe for the Braves. He's averaged just 69 innings in his three seasons and that total was boosted by the 77 he threw as a rookie. Remember, some of these guys were used in other roles before becoming closers. Mariano Rivera threw 107 2/3 innings in a setup role in 1996, for example.

It all points to five more great seasons from Kimbrel.

Now the Braves just need to start working on those contracts for Minor and Simmons ...