Is Craig Kimbrel Returning To Red Sox Still Legitimate Possibility?

Boston Red Sox chairman Tom Werner made it fairly certain a reunion with free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel wasn’t in the cards for the defending World Series champions.

Asked Monday about the likelihood of Kimbrel returning to Boston, Werner succinctly indicated the chances are “extremely unlikely” Kimbrel is back with the Red Sox.

But that’s not completely ruling it out, either.

The free-agent winds finally started blowing in earnest Tuesday when Manny Machado reportedly agreed to a 10-year, $300 million contract with the San Diego Padres. The next domino to fall, presumably, will be outfielder Bryce Harper.

When that happens, one assumes, the market might really start to get flushed out for the next level of free agents like Kimbrel and starter Dallas Keuchel. After all, spring training games begin Thursday.

According to MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand, what happens with Harper could play a part in deciding Kimbrel’s ultimate destination — with the Red Sox apparently still in play.

“Unless the Phillies miss out on Harper and decide to pivot to the other top free agents — a scenario that sources believe is unlikely — Kimbrel’s best landing spots appear to be the Braves or Red Sox,” Feinsand wrote Wednesday.

The bad news for Kimbrel, as Feinsand also notes, is that both Atlanta and Boston have perceived obstacles in the way of signing Kimbrel. The Braves, he notes, might not want to extend themselves more financially after signing Josh Donaldson. As an aside, if that’s the Braves’ line of thinking, that’s a little weak, as they signed Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million deal that puts them just north of a $126 million payroll in 2019.

The Red Sox’s payroll concerns stem from concerns about the competitive balance tax. The CBT (or the luxury tax, if you prefer) is difficult to truly explain, but MLB Trade Rumors did a terrific job of laying out the issues for Boston earlier this month.

Basically, the Red Sox’s 2018 payroll exceeded the initial tax threshold, setting them up to incur even greater penalties in 2019. Right now, the Red Sox are looking at roughly $241 million in luxury tax payroll, meaning they’re just $5 million short of the third tax threshold, with any overages being taxed at a 75 percent rate (not to mention falling 10 spots in the draft). So if Kimbrel signed for something in the $17.5 million neighborhood annually, it would actually cost the Red Sox nearly $30 million this season if you count the tax, as pointed out by MLB Trade Rumors.

And that’s not even including any payroll the Red Sox might take on during the season by way of trade or other acquisitions.

Feinsand wonders whether teams might get creative in order to sign Kimbrel, using Yoenis Cespedes’ first contract with the Mets — a pact that included a first-year opt-out — as an example. That seems something that might work better for the Braves, but it doesn’t do much to alleviate tax stresses for a team like the Red Sox when the CBT is based on annual value.

Of course, the Red Sox are the Red Sox. They’re a big-market team coming off a World Series win. They’re as well-positioned as almost anyone in baseball to spend, spend, spend. They could still shed some payroll by way of trade — dealing a catcher — seems like a certainty at this point. And for a team that just won 108 games and a championship, the only obvious question mark is the Kimbrel-less bullpen. There’s certainly a strict baseball-centric case to be made for bringing back Kimbrel. He’s an all-time great who still obviously would provide value to a team with clear championship aspirations.

But, yeah. It still seems extremely unlikely.

Thumbnail photo via Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports Images

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