In Need of a Stopgap Closer, Orioles Turn to Craig Kimbrel

Following an All-Star season with the Phillies, Craig Kimbrel heads to Baltimore to anchor the Orioles' bullpen in Félix Bautista's stead.

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - JUNE 25: Craig Kimbrel #31 of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches during the ninth inning against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park on June 25, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

As teams around the league wait for the Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto sweepstakes to wrap up, the 2023 Winter Meetings have been slow as molasses, especially from a free agent standpoint. So slow, in fact, that I spent far too long trying to decide if Craig Kimbrel inking a one-year pact with the Orioles counts as a “major” free agent signing.

With nine All-Star appearances, three Reliever of the Year awards, and 417 career saves, Kimbrel is certainly a big name. His $13 million salary marks the highest AAV given out at the Winter Meetings thus far. His signing has certainly generated more opinions, arguments, and general hubbub than Wade Miley, Erick Fedde, or Victor Caratini.

On the other hand, Kimbrel didn’t even make the top 50 free agents lists at FanGraphs or MLB Trade Rumors. By 2023 FanGraphs WAR, he ranks just ninth among free agent relievers (only by mere decimals, but the point stands). By Steamer projected WAR for the 2024 season, he ranks seventh. The crowdsourced contract projections at FanGraphs had him signing just the fifth-largest deal.

None of these are perfect metrics or exact sciences, especially when we’re dealing with decimal points of WAR and a couple million dollars in estimated salary. That said, it’s not like there’s a scientific definition for a major signing, either.

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Thus, as I sit here without a Cody Bellinger, Blake Snell, or even Lucas Giolito deal to cover, I’m choosing to believe that this is the first major signing of the Winter Meetings. The 2023 AL East champions and 101-game winners just signed a potential future Hall of Famer to replace the most exciting young reliever in the game – Félix Bautista, out for the 2024 season with a UCL tear.

Craig Kimbrel Signs with the Baltimore Orioles

The terms of the deal are relatively simple. It’s a one-year contract for 2024 with a team option for 2025. Kimbrel will earn $12 million next season, while the option is for $13 million (with a $1 million buyout).

Mark Feinsand of MLB.com was the first to report the full terms, while Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic was the first to report that the two sides were in agreement on a deal.

Kimbrel the Closer?

When Rosenthal first reported that the sides were coming together on a deal, he noted that Kimbrel would be the Orioles’ closer.

Will he be the best reliever on the Orioles in 2024? For the sake of their own bullpen, they’d better hope not. Kimbrel remains a talented arm, but he’ll be 36 next year, and he has a 3.49 ERA and 3.54 FIP over the last two seasons. Yennier Cano and Danny Coulombe were each significantly better in 2023.

Still, I’m not surprised Kimbrel will be the closer. For one thing, I don’t think Kimbrel would have signed with a team that wasn’t going to give him a chance to close. With 417 career saves, he ranks eighth on the all-time list.

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While he is highly unlikely ever to cross the 600-save threshold and surpass Trevor Hoffman or Mariano Rivera, he is only 62 saves away from sole possession of third place on the list. He is only 21 saves away from sole possession of third. He is neck in neck with long-time rival Kenley Jansen, who currently has 420 career saves.

Kimbrel is going to want to keep racking up saves for as long as possible. And if he has another season like he did in 2023, I don’t see why the Orioles won’t let him do just that. With Kimbrel as the ninth-inning guy, manager Brandon Hyde can deploy his best weapons, Cano and Coulombe, in any situation he sees fit.

Kimbrel in 2023

Kimbrel’s lackluster performance in the NLCS (and that’s putting it mildly) left a bad impression, yet by and large, Kimbrel was one of the better relief pitchers in baseball last season. He ranked fifth among NL relievers in appearances and 15th in innings pitched. He ranked 9th in saves and 13th in Win Probability Added.

While his 3.26 ERA was more good than great, his 3.08 SIERA and 3.58 xFIP each ranked in the top 20 among qualified NL relievers. Meanwhile, his 3.28 xERA placed in the 86th percentile among all MLB pitchers.

Perhaps most impressive, Kimbrel ranked third in strikeouts, fourth in strikeout percentage, and sixth in strikeouts per nine (among qualified NL relievers). He wasn’t striking out batters quite like he did in his heyday, but he improved upon a career-worst 27.7% strikeout rate from 2022.

He’s not going to be Bautista. He probably won’t be Cano or Coulombe either. Still, Craig Kimbrel remains a top-flight relief pitcher. With the veteran holding down the ninth in 2024, the Orioles can expect to have one of the better bullpens in the American League once again.

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