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Craig Kimbrel: Who's Your Padre?

Craig Kimbrel was traded to the Padres. Why should Reds fans care?

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

In case you missed it, AJ Preller and the San Diego Padres pulled off one final blockbuster trade of the offseason, trading a collection of spare parts and marginal prospects to the Atlanta Braves to acquire Craig Kimbrel and the contract of Melvin (BJ) Upton.  Kimbrel rivals the Reds' own Aroldis Chapman as possibly the top reliever in MLB, so he automatically improves the Padres bullpen.  In making the move, the Padres are taking on significant salary obligations, essentially doubling down on the bold moves made earlier in the offseason to acquire Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and Justin Upton.  It was unusual to see such a trade on the eve of Opening Day, but it could have big ramifications for a variety of reasons for the Reds later this season.

I've already stated that adding Kimbrel makes the Padres bullpen better.  Even with an already good bullpen, Kimbrel improves the Padres.  Maybe it isn't a huge upgrade, but the Padres are at the point where a marginal upgrade could be the difference between making the playoffs and coming up a game short.  As I write this, fangraphs projects the Padres to win 84 games this season.  That would tie them with the Cubs for the second Wild Card.  Even if we don't assume (as Pete Rose hilariously did during the FSO opening day broadcast) that the Cubs will be the Cubs, this move seems to solidify the Padres as legitimate contenders this season.

In contrast, the Reds are projected to win just 75 games this season.  A lot of things would need to go right - particularly on the injury front - for the Reds to make the playoffs this season, but a playoff run is not out of the question by any means.  If the Reds are in the hunt though, there's a good chance that the Padres are one of the teams that they'd be competing against for a playoff spot.  A Padres team with Craig Kimbrel is a better team than a Padres team without Craig Kimbrel, so the road to the playoffs just got marginally more challenging.  What's more, if the Reds and Padres should tie for the second Wild Card spot or both teams should advance as Wild Card teams, the prospect of facing Craig Kimbrel in a one game playoff is not reassuring either.  (Thank goodness Aroldis Chapman would be lining up for the good guys.)

So that's why this trade could matter if all goes well for the Reds this season.  What if it doesn't?  What if Votto and Bruce spend the season bouncing around between the roster and the DL, Frazier and Mesoraco fail to live up to last season's breakouts, age catches up to Brandon Phillips, the pitching staff struggles without Latos and Simon, and so on and so on?  There are some real implications of the Kimbrel trade here too.

Now that Kimbrel is on the Padres, and they're likely to be in the mix for the season, he's unlikely to be a major trade chip after the All-Star break.  If the Reds start out slow and appear to be out of it by the break, Aroldis Chapman will no longer have competition from Kimbrel as the prime bullpen piece on the trade market.  With Chapman under contract for this year and next, he would have immense value, which would be elevated even further by the fact that the acquiring team would be eligible for draft pick compensation should Chapman walk after the 2016 season.  Given Walt Jocketty's tendency to overpay for prime relief pitching, moving Chapman for a major prospect haul would not only bring back significant value, but would also squash any thoughts of giving out another long-term contract (and for bullpen help, at that).  If Chapman starts out strong despite team struggles, it is conceivable that his trade value could be at its absolute apex at the trade deadline, making a failure to trade him a firable offense for Walt Jocketty.

Of course, there's also the possibility that none of it matters.  The Reds could hang around close enough to contention to avoid being sellers at the deadline, only to fall out of contention afterwards.  Chapman's contract would never pass through waivers for him to be a factor at the August deadline, so he'll only be moved if the Reds tank early in the year.  Alternatively, the Reds could get healthy and take the Central by storm, leaving the Cardinals and Pirates to battle with the Padres over those final playoff spots.  Perhaps most likely of all, the Padres could find that the mix of talent that they've acquired just doesn't mesh well, and they could stumble right out of the gate.  In that case, they may be looking to move all these recently acquired pieces to contending teams in order to cut their losses.  Since we're covering all the bases here, I guess you could also come up with some freak scenario in which Cameron Maybin leads the Braves to contention, and this trade matters in totally unexpected ways.

The Reds need only to play the games before them and see how the season shakes out.  If they play like they did on Opening Day, they'll win their share.  If they come up just short of the playoffs though, and Kimbrel and the Padres squeak by them for a final spot, the trade the night before the season started may be just the piece of the puzzle that the Padres needed to make that happen.