Tuesday, February 18, 2014

What Does Kimbrel’s New Deal Mean For Greg Holland?

The Atlanta Braves and All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel agreed to a 4-year, $42 million extension on Friday. The deal will pay Kimbrel $7 million in 2014 with increases up to $13 million in 2017. There are incentives that could increase the overall value and an option is also available for 2018. As Ken Rosenthal noted, the deal is the “largest extension for a closer pre-free agency.” Kimbrel was the latest arbitration-eligible Brave to sign a multi-year deal, joining Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward. Julio Teheran also signed a long-term contract last week.

The strategy of locking up young players is somewhat new in Atlanta, but not Kansas City. As we know, Alcides Escobar and Wade Davis are signed through 2017 and Salvador Perez is on the books through 2019. This leaves many Royals fans looking for the team to make a similar commitment to closer Greg Holland. After watching how the Braves and Kimbrel agreed to a deal, we may have an even clearer look at what Holland is worth. 

How did the process play out in Atlanta? One item to note is the Braves policy concerning arbitration-eligible players. Once the deadline passes for players and teams to exchange salary figures for arbitration, one-year salary discussions cease. People often refer to this as ‘file and trial.’ “It’s a very strict policy,” Braves GM Frank Wren said early this month. “We have no exceptions, unless talks are about a multi-year contract. That’s always been the policy.” Obviously, the Royals do not subscribe to such a policy, as Holland agreed to a one-year deal worth $4.675 million after numbers were exchanged. Holland asked for $5.2 million in arbitration and will make about 8.5 times what he earned in 2013. His 2013 salary ranks in the top ten for Major League closers. He is under team control until 2016.

The Braves submitted a number of $6.55 million for Kimbrel, while the closer felt he was worth $9 million (which is $3.75 million higher than any closer has made in his first arbitration-eligible year). Arbitration hearings can get ugly as the team and the player fight for every cent and the all-or-nothing decision will leave one side disappointed. To avoid going down that road with Kimbrel was huge for Atlanta. Especially since they would likely have to do it multiple times before he becomes a free agent. Both hearings and one-year contract discussions can take a toll and feelings can get hurt, which makes it harder to keep a player once he becomes a free agent. Now, Atlanta and Kimbrel have (theoretically) taken the salary concern off the table for the next four seasons. This will allow the closer to concentrate on the ninth inning, and the Braves to turn their attention to Andtrelton Simmons, Mike Minor and the rest of their young core players.

Now, what does this mean for Greg Holland? First, let’s compare the two closers.
2014 Age

In my opinion, Craig Kimbrel is not only the best closer in baseball, it is not even close. I also think he is in the mix for the title of best pitcher. I know, Clayton Kershaw is on another planet, but so is Kimbrel. The guy is filthy. In the last three seasons, Kimbrel has had the best WHIP (0.87), ERA (1.48) and K/9 (14.9) of all pitchers who threw 200 innings or more. He has an absurd 381 strikeouts in 227.1 career innings. The question for Kimbrel (and any closer) is can he keep it up? Wren thinks so, and he put his money where his mouth is. According to Braves beat writer David O’Brien, Wren said “I’m not in the camp that says anyone can close games.” Kimbrel could be a once-in-a-generation closer. 

But what about Greg Holland? He has certainly been very good, and his stats are not that different from Kimbrel. But as far as a contract goes, two numbers are most important: 28 and 67. 

Holland will be 28 years old in 2014, and Kimbrel is only 26. This matters. The life of a closer is volatile, and not many in today’s game will have extended careers of dominance. At just 26 years old, the Braves felt Kimbrel was worth the risk. He has certainly proved over the last three seasons he is worth it. Braves fans were not so sure though, as there was plenty of talk that backed trading Kimbrel. At 28, Holland loses leverage in long-term contract talks. Do the Royals really want to commit to a closer until he is 32 or 33? 

That brings us to the number 67: The number of saves Holland has earned in his career to date. Let’s face it, Holland has not proven himself over a long enough timeline. Sure, 2013 was outstanding for Holland, but he has just one full season as a closer. Eric Gagne (2003), Robb Nen (2000) and BJ Ryan (2006) have put up some of the best closers’ seasons of all time. It can come and go in a flash. By contrast, Kimbrel has been the full-time closer in Atlanta since 2011 and has recorded 138 saves in that time. Kimbrel could fall apart at any moment, and past results are certainly not an indication of the future, but at least he has three amazing seasons worth of results to back up his new contract. Holland does not.

Also keep in mind the depth of the bullpens. If both closers went down with injury, the Royals would be in a better situation. Possible replacements for Holland include Kelvin Herrera, Louis Coleman, Aaron Crow or possibly even Luke Hochevar or Wade Davis - a very deep group. The Braves could turn to Jordan Walden or David Carpenter, and perhaps lefties Luis Avilan or Jonny Venters, if healthy. Personally, I feel Herrera is the best of the replacement bunch and could be a star closer. Since the Royals have a deeper pen, there is less pressure to commit to one guy.

I would certainly not fault the Royals if they take a wait-and-see approach on Holland for 2014. His salary is reasonable for both sides, and if he puts up similar numbers a contract extension would be justified for 2015 and beyond. I could also see a trade that opens the door for Herrera and allows for greater salary flexibility. I guess we will just have to wait and see. 

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