Another offseason is nearly over for Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, and while watching his beloved Alabama football team didn’t have the satisfying ending as the season before, watching his wife wield a hunting rifle did.
“She killed another big deer this year,” said Kimbrel, whose wife, Ashley, shot an eight-point deer a year ago in the couple’s first hunting trip together, not long after their wedding. “She’s a better shot than I am.
“Well, she says she is.”
Kimbrel hunts with a bow and Ashley with a rifle during excursions together on land that Kimbrel leases in south Alabama for that purpose. He’s from Huntsville and still lives there.
“She likes (hunting) now,” Kimbrel said during the Braves’ early pitching camp that ended Friday at Turner Field. “She figures if I’m going to go hunting, it’s a good way that she can spend some time with me.”
The low-key offseason he relishes will end abruptly. Braves pitchers and catchers report to spring training at Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on Thursday. And, oh yeah, Kimbrel is set to face the Braves in an arbitration hearing Feb. 17 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The game’s best closer declined to answer questions about arbitration, but was otherwise engaging and upbeat during a couple of recent interviews at the stadium.
Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward signed multiyear contracts this week, leaving Kimbrel as the only unsigned arbitration-eligible Brave. He’s asking for $9 million, far above the record for a first-year-arbitration reliever, which is Jonathan Papelbon’s $6.25 million settlement with the Red Sox in 2009.
The Braves proposed $6.55 million, and a three-person arbitration panel will decide on one or the other salary for Kimbrel. That’s barring a multiyear deal before Feb. 17, which seemed unlikely considering Kimbrel’s arbitration asking price.
If Kimbrel is awarded the $9 million salary, it’s possible he could become too expensive for the Braves to keep beyond 2014. Neither he nor team officials have discussed publicly any such potential ramifications.
It was an otherwise relaxing winter for Kimbrel, after the 25-year-old flamethrower became the youngest to save 50 games in a season in 2013, notching that many to tie for the major league lead.
“Went to Napa (California) for first time,” he said. “Went out to San Diego, went to the (players’) union meetings. (Brandon) Beachy is the rep, but I just wanted to go and see what it was about. … Went to a bunch of weddings. Went to Niagara Falls, that was pretty cool.”
CJ eager to get going: He’s not a pitcher or catcher, but no player has worked out more frequently at Turner Field than Chris Johnson.
The third baseman is coming off a season in which he batted .321 with 46 extra-base hits (12 homers) in 514 at-bats, after turning what had been a platoon into his own full-time job by late May when the Braves traded Juan Francisco.
Johnson led the National League batting race much of the season before finishing third, two points ahead of Freeman. Johnson led the majors with a .383 average against left-handers — no other qualifier was above .368 — and was 10th in the NL with a .336 average with runners in scoring position.
His fast start helped make Francisco expendable, and this year there’s no question who has the Braves’ third-base job. Still, Johnson said he’s taking nothing for granted. He and his fiancee rented a house in Atlanta, and he’s been working out at Turner Field, rather than one of the high-end gyms some players use in the winter.
“Been using the cages and the gym here, and the strength-and-conditioning coach is here every day, the coaches are here,” he said Friday morning in the Braves’ clubhouse, where he was again the only non-pitcher or catcher in the place.
All around him, workers packed equipment and supplies for the big-rig truck waiting to transport the stuff to Florida.
“It just got real,” said Johnson, who plans to go to spring training Wednesday, six days before reporting day for position players. “It’s exciting. We’re ready to go. I’m going to go home right now and start packing.”