The Dodgers pulled off a blockbuster trade Friday, acquiring All-Star reliever Craig Kimbrel from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for outfielder AJ Pollock.
Kimbrel, who turns 34 in May, has been one of baseball’s best closers for most of the last decade, with 372 saves and a 2.18 earned-run average during his 12-year career. With the Dodgers, he can fill the void left by the departure of Kenley Jansen, taking over a closer role the team had been planning to address by committee.
“I don’t think I could be any happier,” said Kimbrel, who made the short trek across the Camelback Ranch spring training complex shared by the clubs to join the Dodgers on Friday afternoon.
“I mean, you come over to a team like this that already expects to win, and I’m being asked to come in and just do my job. It feels really nice.”
To pull off the deal, the Dodgers had to give up one of their most experienced players in Pollock, a 10-year veteran coming off two of the best seasons of his career.
However, pitching is a much bigger need for the Dodgers, who still should have one of the best lineups in baseball but appear to be thinner on the mound — and in the starting rotation, in particular — than usual entering the season. Friday’s trade addressed one big need, solidifying their plans at the back of the bullpen exactly the week before opening day.
“It was an opportunity for us to strengthen our pitching and take from an area that we felt had a little bit more depth,” general manager Brandon Gomes said.
Pollock, 34, is due to earn $10 million and has a $10-million player option for 2023, or a $5-million buyout. Kimbrel is due $16 million after the White Sox picked up a club option and will be a free agent at the end of the season.
Kimbrel is an eight-time All-Star who began his career starring for the Atlanta Braves from 2010 to 2014. He was traded to the San Diego Padres in 2015, then spoke before the 2016 season to the Boston Red Sox, for whom he played three years.
At every stop he was dominant. He recorded at least 30 saves in eight straight seasons. He posted an ERA above 3.00 only once.
But upon signing with the Chicago Cubs midway through the 2019 season, after he expected for a bigger contract in free agency, Kimbrel regressed. In his first season in Chicago, he had a 6.53 ERA. He wasn’t much better during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, recording at 5.28 ERA.
Kimbrel had a bounce-back start to last season, earning an All-Star selection after beginning the year with 23 saves and a 0.49 ERA over his first 39 games. But after Kimbrel was traded to the White Sox and pushed into a setup role in front of White Sox closer Liam Hendriks, the right-hander struggled, posting a 5.09 ERA in 24 appearances.
“There were some pitches that I wasn’t landing, and I was getting myself into some counts where I had to attack a little bit more,” said Kimbrel, who didn’t blame his inconsistent finish on his change in roles. “It’s really just staying in control and making sure I can throw all my pitches.”
With Hendriks occupying the closer role with the White Sox, there had been speculation throughout the spring that the team might try to move Kimbrel before the start of the season. In the Dodgers, the White Sox found a willing trade partner. Pollock will fill a need in Chicago’s outfield, while Kimbrel gets to return to his ninth-inning role.
“I’m going to be able to put some shoes on that I know that fit,” Kimbrel said. “Hopefully it turns into good results.”
Pollock quietly had been on the trading block this spring after the Dodgers’ competitive balance tax payroll ballooned beyond $290 million — the highest tax threshold — following the signing of Freddie Freeman, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
Pollock batted .297 with 21 home runs, 69 RBIs and an .892 on-base-plus-slugging percentage last year, but his contract made him one of the easiest players to trade. And with Chris Taylor and Gavin Lux capable of playing left field, plus Edwin Ríos, Jake Lamb and Kevin Pillar pushing for at-bats, the Dodgers decided Pollock was worth parting with — getting Kimbrel to ensure they will enter the new season with a closer after all.
“As much as [everyone] loves AJ,” Gomes said, “we felt like it was a way to balance up the roster, add to our pitching depth, and thought it was the right thing for the team in totality.”
Staff writer Jorge Castillo contributed to this report.