Having the same dominant closer for many years is a luxury that a mid-market team basically cannot afford — honestly, considering how few dominant closers are able to keep their stuff for more than a few years, it’s a luxury that hardly anyone can afford. The Braves have been very fortunate to have a revolving door of reasonably dominant closers in a stop-gap role over the past few years, starting after the atrocious Reitsma/Wickman era. From Mike Gonzalez to Rafael Soriano to Billy Wagner and now to the Kraken, the Braves have been able to rotate out a position that many teams struggle to fill with short-term solutions.
For the most part, the Braves have had fairly good luck with closers, over the past two decades. Looking back to the 90s, Wohlers to Ligtenberg to Rocker to Smoltz also gave us 9 years of great closers. Today, the responsibilities have been placed on the broad, sturdy shoulders of Craig Kimbrel.
Kimbrel was drafted in the third round out of Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, AL in 2008 (the second time the Braves drafted him). Kimbrel blew through all levels of the minor leagues and ended up in AAA at the end of his second professional season. After a half-season in Gwinnett during the 2010 season, Kimbrel was called up to Atlanta and immediately began his run of dominance. Some fun highlights of his 21 games: an ERA+ of 914, 40 K’s in 20.2 IP, and only 9 hits allowed.
In 2011, Kimbrel burst onto the national scene when he began the season as Atlanta’s closer and the show-stopper of the O’Ventbrel trio. He finished the season with an ERA+ of 183, leading the league in saves, earning an All-Star game appearance, and the Rookie of the Year award. Kimbrel was almost entirely uncontested for the award, as Freddie Freeman finished second with no first place votes.
2012 saw nearly unprecedented levels of dominance. In perhaps one of the greatest seasons ever by a reliever and one that will surely see him get some Cy Young love, Kimbrel was almost literally unhittable. 16.9 K/9, an ERA+ of 399, and one again leading the league in saves made Atlanta’s bullpen once again best in the league. If you could translate that level of dominance to a starting pitcher, Kimbrel would have had an easy shot at the Cy Young. He’ll have to settle for the Rolaids Relief Man award.
Kimbrel is an incredibly valuable asset that the Braves are incredibly fortunate to have. He made $590k in 2012 and he will see a bump in 2013, which is his last year before arbitration. So the Braves will have to make a decision before 2014. Will the Braves allocate the money that he will most certainly deserve, seek to buy out his arbitration years, or trade him before he becomes a $10M a year player on a team with a limited budget? I’m not a major league GM, but I would have to say that within the next two years, Craig will become a luxury the Braves simply will not be able to afford.
Kimbrel is 5’10”, and has a delivery that causes him to throw across his body with a violent ending, and I would be very hesitant to commit to him long-term. With the Braves’ success of developing closers and relievers overall, we ought to enjoy Kimbrel’s success until he reaches a salary that we simply can’t justify.
In the meantime, gosh, what a sight to enjoy.