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Washington Nationals trade target(s): Craig Kimbrel/Padres arms

The Washington Nationals look like they're in the market for relief help. Let's take a look at one of the big guns that is presumably on the market, Padres closer Craig Kimbrel.

It would be a lot less fun to talk about how stupid this looks if the Nats acquired Craig Kimbrel.
It would be a lot less fun to talk about how stupid this looks if the Nats acquired Craig Kimbrel.
Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier today, we looked at one of the top relievers who figures to be available on the trade market. Let's have a look at the other. Nats fans are certainly familiar with Padres closer Craig Kimbrel, who spent the first five seasons of his career pitching for the rival Atlanta Braves. Just as he's done against most teams, Kimbrel has dominated the Nats so far in his career. In 42 career appearances against the Nats, Kimbrel has 22 saves with a 1.74 ERA, a 0.75 WHIP, and an insane 72 strikeouts in 41.1 innings.

After being traded to the San Diego Padres the night before the regular season, Kimbrel has struggled (for him) a bit this season. He's actually looked human. In 38 appearances this season, Kimbrel has a 2.97 ERA, which is 0.87 higher than he's finished with in any full big league season. His strikeouts are down a touch (still 12.88 K/9) and his walk rate is hovering a little above his career average (3.47 BB/9). His 0.74 HR/9 is also a career worst, despite the fact that he now pitches in the best pitcher's park in the majors. Some of the reason for Kimbrel's struggles may be that he's sporting a career high .333 BABIP against, but the decreased strikeout rate, the increased walk rate, and the increased home run rate have led to a career worst (by half a run) FIP, too.

Why could the Nats use him?

Kimbrel remains one of the more dominant relievers in the game. Since reaching the majors in 2010, Kimbrel leads all relievers with 12.5 fWAR and 12.7 rWAR. His 1.60 ERA ranks third among all relievers in that span. His 1.62 FIP leads all relievers in that span. His 14.61 K/9 ranks second to Aroldis Chapman among qualified relievers since they both got the call in 2010.

Like Chapman, Kimbrel dominates with extreme velocity. His velocity may not be as extreme as Chapman's, but his average fastball this season has been 97.4 MPH according to Pitchf/x. He does pop the glove at triple digits on occasion. He complements his fastball with a devastating knuckle curve that averages 86.6 MPH. While Kimbrel doesn't have a third pitch, his two pitch mix provides an outstanding power arsenal that's been pretty much equally effective against hitters from both sides of the plate.

Kimbrel also has the pedigree of being one of the top closers in baseball over the past five years. Since ascending to the role in Atlanta, Kimbrel has converted 212 of his 232 chances, and is completely comfortable working in the ninth inning. Despite his ratios being down a bit this season, Kimbrel has still converted 26 of 27 chances in 2015. At 27, Kimbrel also appears to be in the prime of his career and under contract at a fairly reasonable rate through 2018.

How would the Nationals use him?

As is the case with Chapman, one would have to think that if the Nats go out and pay the (expected) premium cost to get Kimbrel, he would take over the primary duties in the ninth inning. While Storen has been terrific in the role this season and has had success as the Nats closer in the past, Kimbrel has more of a (and a stronger) track record. This is no insult to Drew... If the Nats were to find a way to acquire Kimbrel, they'd be getting a player who has been one of the top two or three closers in the game for the past five years. I'll once again add the disclaimer that I did with Chapman, though.

Adding a dominant reliever and strengthening the bullpen is the goal. Having one Drew Storen is great, but having a second reliever in that class makes Matt Williams' job a lot easier. Sometimes the real "save" comes in the seventh or eighth inning. Sometimes the opposing team has the heart of the order due up in the eighth, and the "setup man" is used in that inning while the "closer" is (presumably) being saved to face 7-8-9 in the ninth inning. Sometimes the Nats will turn to one of their other setup men only to see the opposing team start a rally in the seventh or eighth inning. Having another arm like Storen or Kimbrel handy to escape the jam makes it an easier call if there's another reliable option to shut the door in the ninth.

The beauty of having two guys like Storen and Kimbrel on the roster is that they're fairly interchangeable. If Kimbrel is unavailable or (gasp) used to come in with runners on second and third and one out in the seventh or eighth inning because the situation calls for a strikeout, Storen is more than capable of working the ninth inning. The same situation applies to using Storen earlier in the game and holding Kimbrel in reserve for the all too coveted "save." Again, Storen might end up not being thrilled because it may hurt his value in arbitration over the winter (Kimbrel's contract is set), but it's not about placating the player. It's about improving the bullpen as a whole.

Does he have any weaknesses?

Yeah... We don't like him very much from his time in Atlanta. Apart from that, he's having the worst season of his career, but he's still been one of the better closers in the league.

What's his contract status?

Kimbrel is making $9 million this season (~$4 million the rest of the way). He's scheduled to make $11 million in 2016, $13 million in 2017, and has a $13 million club option in 2018 with a $1 million buyout. That's a lower average annual value than what the Nats gave Rafael Soriano after the 2012 season for a significantly better pitcher. It's also worth noting that Storen is entering his final year of arbitration this offseason, so acquiring Kimbrel would give them a market value closer with cost certainty through 2018... assuming that they'd end up picking up the option.

Is he really available?

I suppose this would be in question a bit. First year Padres GM A.J. Preller made an awful lot of noise last offseason, but the general belief is that they're selling. At 44-51, the Padres are 9.5 back in the division and 7.5 back in the wildcard race. With Justin Upton slated to hit free agency and Matt Kemp looking like a sunk cost who will eat up $18.25 million of their payroll in each of the next four seasons, speculation about the Padres trying to unload some salary has increased. There are rumors circulating that the Pads are trying to go "full Marlins" and attempting to trade James Shields, who they just signed to a four year, $75 million contract this past offseason. If they're considering doing that, there's reason to believe that they might shop their high priced closer when they have some strong cheaper options that could fill that void.

Before finishing up with Kimbrel, let's review some of those strong cheaper options that they have, since some of them would presumably be a lot cheaper for the Nats to acquire as well.....

Joaquin Benoit

On the surface, he looks just fine. His 2.43 ERA is the highest it's been in the past three years, but that's nothing to sneeze at for a 38 year old pitcher with closing experience. He has an expiring contract ($8 million option for next season... there's a vesting clause, but he's obviously not going to finish with 55 games finished in 2015), so there's no real commitment beyond the end of the 2015 season. Like Kimbrel, his strikeouts are down this year. His walks are way up (above 3.00 BB/9 for the first time since 2007). His HR/9 is up quite a bit as well. That's led to a 4.10 FIP, which tells us that some regression is probably coming if he doesn't show improvement in those other metrics in the second half. He's not going to finish the year with a .153 BABIP. Still, he'd be cheap, and his track record is far more trustworthy than Aaron Barrett or (insert latest flavor of the week rookie's name here).

Kevin Quackenbush/Brandon Maurer

Yeah... I shouldn't even bother talking about them. Maurer was rough as a starter with the Mariners, but has been terrific as a reliever in San Diego since being acquired in the Seth Smith trade this offseason. He hasn't even hit his arbitration years yet.... Not only does he have an outstanding name, but Quackenbush has been an outstanding right-handed reliever in his first two big league seasons. He's compiled a 2.71 ERA and 2.58 FIP in 83 innings. Again, he hasn't hit his arbitration years yet. While it's unrealistic to think that the Padres would give up one of these two arms at the deadline, their performance and remaining club control certainly make it look more likely that they would consider dealing Kimbrel.

What will the Padres be looking for?

Young, cheap talent that isn't in the outfield. They're kind of pot committed in the outfield with an albatross in Matt Kemp and a talented young player that they gave up a lot to get in Wil Myers. Ironically, their biggest organizational hole among position players appears to be at shortstop. Jose Rondon, acquired in the Huston Street deal last season, appears to be their top prospect up the middle, but he's really looked overmatched since getting the call to AA (.190/.219/.230 in 107 PA) and doesn't look particularly close to the majors. They're so desperate to fill the SS spot at the big league level that they played Will Middlebrooks there the other day. Was it really that wise for them to include Trea Turner in the Wil Myers deal?

Outside of that, they'd likely be looking for (general) talent over positional need. There's no such thing as too much pitching, so a starting prospect would probably be part of the package that they're looking for. San Diego should be looking for a similar package to what Cincinnati would look for from Chapman. Kimbrel's three remaining years certainly aren't cheap, but they're market value, if not slightly below. Any team acquiring him is going to get some mileage out of him. They'll expect two Top 100 prospects.

What could/should the Nats offer?

I'll echo what I said with Chapman. They should hold on tight to Lucas Giolito, Joe Ross, and Trea Turner. Outside of those three players, there aren't any two players in the Nats system that I wouldn't consider packaging to acquire Kimbrel. With San Diego seeming to have a need for a shortstop (or second baseman/moving Jedd Gyorko to third), Wilmer Difo again appears to be a good fit. Tie him to a quality starting pitching prospect like A.J. Cole or Reynaldo Lopez and I think that the Nats could be in the conversation.

Silly, meaningless stat of the day

Craig Kimbrel has blown twenty save opportunities in his career. While Kimbrel's numbers tell us that he's dominated the Nats throughout his career, four of those blown saves came against the Nats. That's more blown saves than Kimbrel has had against any other team (Phillies, Marlins, Diamondbacks: 3).

Will the Nats trade for Craig Kimbrel?

I'm going to say no again, but I have to confess that I'm more interested in Kimbrel than I am in Chapman. I'd generally prefer to avoid acquiring a player on a long-term deal, but sign me up if they're acquiring a top-notch closer for the prime years of his career earning a lower AAV than the Nats paid to sign Rafael Soriano a couple of years ago. I also think that the Padres are more likely to look at dealing Kimbrel as a salary dump than the Reds are with Chapman, so I think that he may end up being a bit cheaper in terms of personnel.

As I said when we talked about Chapman, if you're going for it in 2015, go for it! Don't go out and patch the bullpen up with a middling reliever who is closing for a bad team. Go out and get a truly dominant arm to pair with Storen. Plus, boy would the Braves fans be pissed upset!