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Phillies to sign Craig Kimbrel, per reports

Just when it looked like the Phillies’ heavy lifting was done for the offseason, they pulled off one more big deal just before Christmas.

They’ve reached a one-year, $10 million contract with free-agent reliever Craig Kimbrel, according to ESPN. The deal was first reported by The Athletic. It’s the same contract the Phillies signed Corey Knebel to last offseason.

Kimbrel was the top arm left in a thinning class of free-agent relievers. He is coming off of an up-and-down season with the Dodgers in which he saved 22 games with a 3.75 ERA but lost his job late in the year and missed fewer bats with a lower strikeout rate than ever before in his big-league career.

Kimbrel has essentially alternated dominant seasons with below-average seasons every year since 2018. The common thread in his down years has been a lack of control. His four worst years  — 2016, 2019, 2020 and 2022 — were the four seasons he struggled most limiting walks.

But when he’s on, he’s proven to be one of baseball’s best and most overpowering relievers. He is a potential future Hall of Famer with 394 career saves, a 2.31 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 410 more strikeouts than innings pitched. He’s also appeared in 23 playoff games with four different teams — the Braves, Red Sox, Cubs and White Sox. He won a ring with the 2018 Red Sox and saved six games during their playoff run.

This is the second time Dave Dombrowski has landed Kimbrel. He was the Red Sox president of baseball operations when they traded four prospects including Manuel Margot to San Diego for Kimbrel in November 2015, just three months after he was hired. Dombrowski, of course, was in charge when Boston won it all in 2018 before being let go the next September.

 

The Phillies needed another high-leverage bullpen arm and got one with Kimbrel. Now, they hope they’re getting the good Kimbrel. He joins Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Alvarado at the back end of the bullpen. Matt Strahm, Connor Brogdon and Andrew Bellatti are also in line for high-leverage work. 

Other opening-day bullpen candidates include Sam Coonrod, Nick Nelson and prospects Andrew Baker and Francisco Morales. The Phillies could also end up carrying Bailey Falter and/or Cristopher Sanchez as a swingman.

The big question will be who will close for the Phillies. Dominguez did a fine job in the role in 2022 but Kimbrel may end up getting the first chance because he’s spent 11½ of the last 12 seasons as a closer and the one half-season he spent as a setup with the White Sox went very poorly. There is much to figure out in the months before Rob Thomson has to make his first set of late bullpen decisions in a regular-season game.

The Phils signed the lefty Strahm earlier this offseason to a two-year, $15 million contract. They’ve signed Trea Turner to play shortstop, Taijuan Walker to be a mid-rotation starter and Strahm and Kimbrel to pick up important outs late in games. There is no glaring hole left on this roster but teams could always use more pitching depth and we could see the Phils make some lesser moves in the new year.

From a luxury tax perspective, the Kimbrel deal will put the Phillies at approximately $251 million, the largest payroll in team history. The first luxury tax threshold in 2023 is $233 million and the Phils would pay a 30% tax on every dollar spent over $233 million, though teams’ tax penalties are not calculated until the end of the season.

Only the Mets ($392M) and Yankees ($291M) have higher estimated payrolls than the Phillies heading into the holidays.

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