Why Sox' return in potential Kimbrel trade hard to predict


Craig Kimbrel is a trade candidate. Just ask the Chicago White Sox.

"What we have to figure out is whether it makes the most sense to have Craig in a White Sox uniform going forward or is there a better use of that spot — and him, perhaps — via trade," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said in November, during the GM meetings in Southern California. "It didn't work out the way we wanted last year, so perhaps there is a better use of his skills than how we were doing it. So we have to reconsider his usage with us versus a potential trade."

For Hahn, open discussions of players as trade chips are wildly rare, indicating that moving on from Kimbrel is more than just a possibility but a likely outcome whenever the lockout ends and the White Sox' front office can resume its preparations for the 2022 campaign.

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As the general manager mentioned, obviously things did not work out after Kimbrel was acquired at the trade deadline last summer. The transition from an All-Star closer to a setup man did not go well, with the potential future Hall of Famer tagged for a 5.09 ERA in 24 regular-season relief appearances and for three runs over the course of two postseason innings.

Even though the White Sox picked up Kimbrel's $16 million option for 2022, it's easy to see the experiment ending, especially after they gave Kendall Graveman a three-year free-agent deal to pitch in front of two-time American League Reliever of the Year Liam Hendriks.

But as easy as it is to mark this as the end of Kimbrel's stay on the South Side, it's that difficult to figure out what a trade might look like. Baseball's offseason has been frozen in place for more than a month, while the league and the players' union have just this week started working to advance negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement.

You can go around the game and try to find out who needs a closer — after a quick glance, the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres jump out, slightly less so always spend-happy National League East squads like the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets — but more important, at this moment, than where Kimbrel might end up is what kind of return the White Sox can get.

That's also tricky to nail down. It could be a salary swap, with the White Sox receiving a big league player who also could use a change of scenery — and comes with a roughly $16 million price tag. It could be a salary dump, in which Kimbrel gets added as another team's high priced bullpen piece but the White Sox come away with little more than the ability to allocate that money elsewhere. It could be something different still, with the White Sox taking on some of that salary in order to boost their return.

Kimbrel should remain attractive to any team looking to upgrade its relief corps, though suitors might be limited to those needing a closer after the way Kimbrel struggled to adjust to pitching the eighth instead of the ninth last year. But his stellar numbers before joining the White Sox — a 0.49 ERA in 39 appearances with the Crosstown-rival Cubs — are certainly recent enough to incite interest.

That said, between Kimbrel's somewhat spectacular failings in the setup role and Hahn's open discussion of Kimbrel as a trade candidate, any deal might not necessarily come as a way for the White Sox to bulk up, where Kimbrel would net the kind of package fans saw in the trades that launched the rebuild. So don't necessarily expect the White Sox' top prospect list to be shaken up by the return in any Kimbrel deal. Trading elite closers has gotten teams high profile prospects in the past, but the White Sox are in a different situation, it would seem.

There's also the matter of the ongoing labor strife, specifically what sort of new rules, economic and otherwise, teams could be operating under on the other side of the lockout. New dictates on how teams must spend to be competitive — among the union's top priorities — could throw new suitors into the mix, regardless of Kimbrel's $16 million salary. And that could upend this entire discussion.

On top of all of that, here's a thought: What if the White Sox just keep Kimbrel in their bullpen?

Yes, it would seem quite strange for Hahn to take the seemingly significant step of talking about a Kimbrel trade in the open only to not make a deal. But remember, too, that despite what they saw over the final couple months of the 2021 season, they still have one of baseball's all-time great relievers under contract for 2022.

The White Sox have done great work in adding Graveman to help stem the effects of an exodus that saw the departures of Michael Kopech, Ryan Tepera and Evan Marshall — one that could also potentially include Garrett Crochet, whose 2022 role remains undecided. If Kimbrel is also a part of that list, it wouldn't be unexpected, of course, but keeping him in place could make the bullpen the sort of strength Hahn envisioned when he sent Nick Madrigal and Codi Heuer to the North Side last summer.

Perhaps a full offseason to get acclimated to the setup role would produce different results than what Kimbrel turned in after being thrust into that role last summer. Think of a back-end monster of Hendriks, Kimbrel, Graveman and Aaron Bummer.

But that was the pitch last summer, too, and it didn't work out, meaning any roll of the dice that includes Kimbrel showing up to White Sox camp this spring will have to come with a different approach, another factor for those looking to forecast what a trade could look like.

"I don't know if we're ever going to have an exact answer for why it didn't work out over those eight weeks," Hahn said, "but if we're going to work him into our plans in the future, we're going to have to find a way to maximize his abilities.

"The question for us is, with Liam here, and if we proceed with both of them, how do we get the best out of both of them? In the second year of that (setup) role, would it be more comfortable, for example?

"There is no clear cut answer on Nov. 9. Those are all parts of the decision, the conversation."

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