That looks like a simple sentence. In truth, it is 21 words of absurdism. It is, in many ways, the perfect summation of how baseball's economic system short-circuited. It is disparate ingredients swimming in the same stock pot and producing something gamy and funky and generally unappetizing. It is also worthy of a clause-by-clause breakdown, to tie together these elements and make sense of a baseball story that didn't need to be.
Over the next week ...
For 211 days, Keuchel and Kimbrel have been free agents, available to sign with any of MLB's 30 teams. That's an entire offseason, all of spring training and the first third of the season. Neither the excitement of the winter nor the improvement of rivals nor the fear of camp not turning out as intended nor the rigors of 50-plus games has changed that.
There is a distinct expectation, among teams with and without a need to sign a pitcher -- the latter admittedly is in far shorter supply than the former -- that it will happen after the clock strikes 12:01 a.m. and Sunday turns into Monday. At that moment, the draft-pick compensation attached to Keuchel and Kimbrel -- because they rejected qualifying offers from Houston and Boston, respectively -- will disappear and teams' only outlay for the players will be monetary.
Executives privately admit that it's a terrible look -- that no matter what Keuchel or Kimbrel went into the winter seeking, two pitchers with their pedigrees remaining free agents into the third month of a season reflects poorly on the industry writ large. Keuchel, 31, is a workhorse. Only a dozen pitchers have thrown more than his 950⅓ innings over the past five seasons -- and just five of those sported a better ERA. Kimbrel, who turns 31 today, has been the best closer of his generation and posted more wins above replacement through age 30 than every reliever but Lee Smith and Bruce Sutter, each of whom threw nearly 250 innings more in that time span than Kimbrel.
Clearly teams did not believe Kimbrel was worth the $120 million over six years they say he sought over the winter. Keuchel likewise did not appeal to them at a similar number of years and an even higher per-annum price. But still a free agent? Even with seven American League teams and as many as 13 in the National League with at least some hope for the playoffs? A draft pick is going to get in the way of that?
... as the Major League Baseball draft approaches ...
If indeed a rush on Keuchel or Kimbrel commences when draft-pick compensation vanishes, it will only reinforce the need to once and for all untether free agency from the draft. Every iteration of the system linking the two has been abused or contributed to a dampening of the free-agent market. The general premise sounds noble: Give back to teams that lose the best free agents, penalize the teams rich enough to sign them. The reality is muddier and plays out to its grubbiest endpoint with Keuchel and Kimbrel: The penalty applies to all teams, not just the richest, and gets passed on to the players, to whom draft picks tether themselves.
Teams already do all they can to undercut the value of players, much as players try to extract the most out of teams. The power imbalance reveals itself in the perception of offers. Keuchel and Kimbrel have been castigated this winter for overvaluing themselves; teams, meanwhile, have offered well below the value of both players' projected numbers, and they're instead lauded for fiscal responsibility or attempts to get a good deal.
The draft-pick excuse is the apex of this. Yes, draft picks do have value -- and a fair amount of it, actually, because MLB's core economic system depresses the earning potential of players through their prime years. At the same time, if the draft -- which, best-case scenario, churns out a major-league-ready player within two years -- so clearly exceeds in importance what's happening in the major leagues right now, perhaps it's time to send the pendulum in a different direction. Because contending teams are going to lose out on Keuchel or Kimbrel due to fear over draft-pick value -- or, better put, teams that can legitimately strengthen their chances of winning a World Series will opt instead for the lottery ticket.
... a creative team ...
Here's the fun part. Any of those 20 contending teams can jump the market. If they really believe the beginning of the draft is going to jump-start two markets that never really materialized in the first place, they can call Keuchel's agent, Scott Boras, or Kimbrel's agent, David Meter, and say: Forget the pick, let's do a deal.
There are so many options too. Start with Kimbrel. Teams might be more inclined to jump the market if he opts for a one-year deal. Kimbrel is also wary of the volatility of relief pitching and teams believe he will continue to look for a multiyear pact. Wariness will greet such a tack.
A shorter-term deal, on the other hand, suddenly makes plenty of sense for the Chicago Cubs. They don't have a closer. The salary that will count against their luxury-tax number is what Kimbrel is being paid, not the full-season figure. They're already above the second tax threshold, and Kimbrel isn't going to take them to the third. And they'd have to give up just the 64th pick, which carries slightly more than $1 million in bonus money (and an implied value, because of the return, of closer to $4 million).
If the Cubs want a closer, they can trade for one -- and give up top prospects to do so -- or simply pay cash for Kimbrel. However mediocre he looked last October, Kimbrel pitching ninth innings in October instead of Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek and others would round out an awfully talented team.
Keuchel, on the other hand, would seem to fit very nicely with the New York Yankees or Tampa Bay Rays, who happen to be in first and second place in the AL East. Every Yankees player is mandated, it seems, for at least one injured-list stint, so there's still room in the rotation for Keuchel. And the Rays, whose only starters are Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, have nothing but room until the return of Tyler Glasnow from the IL and the ascent of prospects.
For the Yankees, it would cost the 38th pick and nearly $2 million in bonus money. The Rays would forfeit the 40th pick. As Craig Edwards noted at FanGraphs, each of those picks is worth about $8 million in value. The Rays are unlikely to jump the market, even if it would so behoove them. The Yankees could because they're the Yankees, but they have embraced value with great rigor.
So will anyone get creative? Will the Brewers say forget it, be willing to forfeit the 133rd overall pick (and its $425,000 in draft dollars) and give Josh Hader a chance to breathe with the addition of Kimbrel? Will the Braves, so deep already in young talent, cede the 60th pick so they don't have to go against the Dodgers or Cubs in the first round of the playoffs with Luke Jackson closing games? Can the Rays or Dodgers or Padres or even the Red Sox get the reliever each needs before the draft pick turns into a pumpkin? Will the Phillies solve their fifth-starter issue not internally but with Keuchel -- and give up only the 91st pick in the process? Do the Brewers or Cardinals or Twins or even the Astros grab that starter to round out their rotation? Does anyone want to win enough that a team, before the draft ...
... could sign Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel.
That's not exactly a fair question. Of course teams want to win. Professional sports would not exist otherwise. The better question: Do they want to win so badly that they're willing to do something irrational?
Because in most of these cases, it's true: Jumping the market to sign Keuchel or Kimbrel just days before they can avoid giving up a draft pick to do so would be irrational. It also would avoid the idea of a bidding war ... which could wind up being nothing more than a red herring. As valuable as the draft picks might be to teams, their ultimate decision to sign a player will depend in large part on what he's asking.
And whether teams are willing to meet that price, of course, depends on what he can reasonably provide. At this point, Keuchel and Kimbrel will take a few weeks minimum to prepare for major league games. The good news is they'll be fresh, rested and presumably ready to be taxed even harder than usual down the stretch and into the playoff drive.
Both understand they're pitching for big paydays at this point. If Keuchel can stay healthy and produce in the postseason, surely a team will give him a representative multiyear offer next winter. If Kimbrel can be the guy who knows where his 99 mph fastball is going and can throw enough strikes with his curveball to keep hitters honest, he might not get $120 million, but half that isn't out of the question. Both understand too that they shouldn't be anywhere close to this position, that baseball is a sport with enough mediocrity that Keuchel and Kimbrel's unemployment is farcical. There are hundreds upon hundreds of worse pitchers in the major leagues today.
That should be remedied soon. Maybe not this week, unless a team recognizes an opportunity, and maybe not even early next week, but soon enough. It wouldn't necessarily right a wrong in full, but at least it would take a step in the right direction and remind MLB that as it meets soon with the players' union to discuss changes to the economic system, this case -- and broken draft-pick compensation -- should be among the first things discussed.