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Phillies are looking for a closer, and Craig Kimbrel looms as a trade candidate

The longtime closer may be on the move this winter, even though the Chicago White Sox picked up his $16 million team option.

Longtime closer Craig Kimbrel could be on the trade block after the Chicago White Sox exercised his $16 million team option.
Longtime closer Craig Kimbrel could be on the trade block after the Chicago White Sox exercised his $16 million team option.Read moreBrian Cassella / MCT

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Seated on a deck chair within sight of a pool in between meetings here Tuesday, Dave Dombrowski listed off the Phillies’ needs, notably a left fielder and a center fielder, positions that he labeled as “complete necessities.” But the president of baseball operations is also focused on another area as the offseason gets underway.

“If I had to say one thing, I’d probably say, ‘Well, I’d like to have someone close a game for us and count on it,’” Dombrowski said. “I don’t think we have a closer right now.”

Indeed, Ian Kennedy, Héctor Neris, and Archie Bradley are free agents. And even if they weren’t, the Phillies would still be on the lookout for more certainty at the end of games, having lacked a shutdown closer since they traded Jonathan Papelbon in 2015.

There are experienced closers available in free agency. Raisel Iglesias may be at the head of the class, but because he got a qualifying offer from the Los Angeles Angels, signing him would require forfeiting a draft pick. That isn’t a deal-breaker for the Phillies (outfielders Nick Castellanos and Michael Conforto also received qualifying offers), but Dombrowski said his “preference is to not give up a draft choice” at a time when the club is trying to restock the farm system.

» READ MORE: Phillies will give prospect Bryson Stott chance to begin season as their starting shortstop

The Phillies could target free-agent closers Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon, Kendall Graveman, or Brad Hand. Dombrowski has spent big money on closers before. In 2013, for instance, he signed Joe Nathan to a two-year, $20 million contract with the Detroit Tigers.

Dombrowski said ownership has provided him with an offseason budget. Although he wouldn’t disclose it, he said, “I don’t find it restrictive.” The Phillies’ payroll reached approximately $205 million this year. But they also won’t be able to fill every need through free agency, and one of the best closers of the last 10 seasons is available in a trade.

The Chicago White Sox exercised their $16 million option on Craig Kimbrel even though he struggled in a setup role after being acquired in a trade-deadline deal with the crosstown Cubs. White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said Kimbrel has expressed a willingness to pitch in non-save situations but acknowledged that it may be difficult for him to adjust to a new role after being used exclusively as a closer since 2011.

“He’s on a Hall of Fame trajectory in the [closer] role, and he didn’t have success in the role we used him,” Hahn said. “So, I think it’s easy to make the assessment that, well, you put him back in the closer’s role; it’s what he’s more accustomed to and he’s more likely to have success. The question for us with [closer] Liam [Hendriks] here is, if we were to proceed with both of them, how’s the best way to maximize what we get out of each of them?”

The White Sox could figure out a solution. More likely, though, they will trade Kimbrel to address another need. And Dombrowski has traded for Kimbrel before, with the Boston Red Sox before the 2016 season.

Kimbrel, 33, reemerged as a lights-out closer with the Cubs this year. After back-to-back rough seasons, he posted a 0.49 ERA with 64 strikeouts and only 13 walks in 36⅔ innings and went 23-for-25 in save chances. In a setup role with the White Sox, he posted a 5.09 ERA, 36 strikeouts, and 10 walks in 23 innings.

It’s unclear whether the Phillies and White Sox would be a match in a trade (Chicago seeks a second baseman, among other things). But it wouldn’t be unusual for the seeds of a potential deal to germinate at the general manager’s meetings, which conclude here on Thursday. In 2007, the Phillies acquired closer Brad Lidge in a trade that came together at these meetings.

The Phillies’ bullpen needs go beyond a closer. Dombrowski said they’re looking for “a couple people” to join holdovers Connor Brogdon, Sam Coonrod, Seranthony Dominguez, and lefty José Alvarado. They claimed lefty Ryan Sherriff off waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays last week.

» READ MORE: Phillies offseason preview: Biggest needs, free-agent options, who returns, and more

Extra bases

Although the Phillies haven’t ruled out a reunion with backup catcher Andrew Knapp, who became a free agent last week after being outrighted from the 40-man roster, Dombrowski said they are looking to upgrade the position. The Phillies are bullish on catching prospects Rafael Marchan and Logan O’Hoppe but want both to play everyday rather than back up workhorse catcher J.T. Realmuto. ... Dombrowski on former first-round picks Mickey Moniak and Adam Haseley as potential outfield solutions: “I’m not counting on either one of them to be on our club next year to start off.”