With a Félix Bautista-sized hole in the bullpen for 2024, the importance for the Orioles to find someone this offseason who can bolster either their eighth- or ninth-inning options has been plain.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, MLB Network’s Joel Sherman offered one possible direction that the O’s could go, reporting on Twitter that the O’s “have been seriously engaged” in trying to bring free agent Craig Kimbrel to sign with Baltimore. By the afternoon, the deal was done. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal was first to report on its completion and on the terms of one year and $13 million.
According to Sherman, that breaks down to a $12 million salary for 2024 with a $1 million buyout on a $13 million 2025 club option. That’s the biggest dollar commitment to a free agent of the Mike Elias era to date. You might share my hope that this will soon be topped for a free agent starting pitcher who actually makes a positive impact.
Kimbrel, now a veteran of 14 MLB seasons, will turn 36 in the first half of next season. He will at that point be a decade removed from his early-career run of absolute dominance with Atlanta, and more than a half-decade beyond a successful three-year stretch with the Red Sox. Kimbrel’s career hit a rough patch in Chicago in the 2019-21 seasons, but he’s bounced back into decent reliever territory over the past two years, first with the Dodgers and then the Phillies.
Signing the most experienced closer available on the free agent market to a one-year deal that will cover Bautista’s absence and then moving on is hardly the worst idea that anyone could think of for the Orioles. Kimbrel has saved 417 games in his career and has nine years with postseason experience. He was on a one-year, $10 million contract for 2023. It’s certainly within the range of what the O’s ought to be able to afford to add to the 2024 payroll, with another needed addition to the starting rotation still to come.
Over the 2023 season with Philly, Kimbrel notched a 3.26 ERA and 1.043 WHIP. Compared to his previous season with the Dodgers, his strikeout rate was up (12.3 K/9) and his walk and hit rates were down. One concern was an uptick in home runs, as he allowed 10 in 69 innings. That’s on the high side, but eight of these were hit by righty batters, so it’s possible the current Camden Yards configuration could help him out there.
Kimbrel may also be due for his luck to turn in a different direction, as he was helped to the results he got by a .239 BABIP allowed. He’s been much lower than the typical pitcher in average for his career at .264, but even a regression to his career rate would be a lot more hits falling. It’s worth keeping an eye on, but again, a one year deal at least minimizes the risk.
For what it’s worth, there’s a whole lot of red (good) on Kimbrel’s Statcast page that keeps official track of a variety of more advanced metrics for players. Kimbrel’s fastball velocity remains good, and he was elite at getting strikeouts and swing-and-misses. The ninth inning strikeouts are a big thing the Orioles are missing without Bautista, something that Yennier Cano simply can’t duplicate even if he has another solid season.
The strikeout rate helped contribute to Kimbrel’s expected stats like xBA and xERA also being elite. A slight decline should be expected with him being a year older, but he’s shown in 2023 that he’s in a fine place. The only real red flag is, again, that batters tended to hit him hard when they did hit him. When they’re only batting .181 overall, it’s something you can live with.
Per Sherman again later on Wednesday, the O’s plan to use Kimbrel as its primary closer. Unless you’ve got a natural aversion to anyone who was ever on the Red Sox - a feeling that I do understand - there’s plenty of reason find this a cromulent signing that might even have some upside if the Orioles are able to continue the revival that he began in LA in 2022.
That doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to work. It is a good chance to take. If the back end mix for the Orioles bullpen is Kimbrel, Cano, Danny Coulombe, DL Hall, Tyler Wells, and maybe even a healthy Dillon Tate, that’s something you can talk yourself into thinking it will be okay. Reality could have other plans.