If you stay up late enough, you can catch a glimpse of pure domination. Stay tuned through a Braves game until the ninth and there is a chance you’ll see the future of closers in baseball. At just 5’10”, Craig Kimbrel may not seem imposing, but as he winds up and delivers, that thought quickly fades. Kimbrel tied the rookie saves record last night and will surely eclipse it later this week. With 40 saves this season, he has pulled even with the mark set last year by rookie Neftali Feliz.
Kimbrel has a chance to be part of a small group of players in baseball history. He has never started a Major League game and has been the Braves closer all of this season. Should Kimbrel choose to stay in the bullpen, unlike Feliz who is widely thought to be moving to the starting rotation next season, he has every opportunity to shut down offenses like only Trevor Hoffman has done before. Mariano Rivera started 10 games in his career. Hoffman started none. At 23 years old, there’s nothing stopping Kimbrel from breaking every closer record out there.
This season, he has compiled a 1.72 ERA in 62.1 innings pitched. He has struck out a head-spinning 101 batters for a K/9 ratio of 14.5. He’s posted an ERA+ of 220 and made his first All-Star Game this season.
Yet, Kimbrel will only be slamming the door shut in the ninth as long as he wants to, or as long as the Braves want him to. Feliz in Texas decided he wanted to be a starter, so the Rangers went out and picked up two players in Mike Adams and Koji Uehara who can compete for the closer job next season. If Kimbrel were making $5 million a year, the choice would be out of Kimbrel’s hands. It would be highly unlikely that the Braves would allow their 23 year old stud pitcher to be limited to one inning of work per night. For that kind of money, they would likely throw him into the mix and have him starting every fifth game. But Kimbrel is only making $419,000.
And the beauty, for the Braves, is Kimbrel was drafted by them and they have control of him for at least four years. He doesn’t become arbitration eligible until 2013 and can’t become a free agent until 2016. I’d expect to see the Braves and Kimbrel work on a long-term deal this off-season. The Braves are in a position that many teams dream of. They can lock Kimbrel in to a deal now, without over-paying later.
No matter what they do, Kimbrel’s highlight reel season will go down in history. With 32 games left to play, it would not be surprising to see Kimbrel reach 50 saves. And as the Braves enter the play-offs in a probable match-up against the offense-heavy Brewers, any lead in the ninth will need extra protection. Kimbrel looks ready for the job.
As the innings slip away and the Braves find themselves with a lead, don’t go to sleep, don’t leave the ballpark early. Stay up for the late show. The late late show with Craig Kimbrel.