Craig Kimbrel reports to spring training this week with the rest of the Braves’ pitchers and catchers, and the elite closer doesn’t see any reason his goals should change even if his supporting cast certainly has.
The Braves’ offseason roster churn including trades that sent away the team’s top setup men from 2014, David Carpenter and Jordan Walden, along with relievers Anthony Varvaro and rookie left-hander Chasen Shreve. But not the 26-year-0ld closer widely considered to be the game’s best in a decade.
The team has plenty of questions, but their bullpen figures to remain formidable, with ex-closers Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson signed to serve as setup men. It could be a devastating trio, if healthy.
“Yeah, there has been a lot of change, there’s no denying that,” Kimbrel said last week, before offering his take on the spring training and the season. “It’s exciting. Going in, obviously guys you spent a lot of time with over the last few years, seeing them with other teams and hoping the best for them. But also getting new teammates and a new team, because we are a new team. It is exciting on that end.”
Many who don’t know him nevertheless didn’t hesitate in offering opinions all winter on what Kimbrel must’ve thought about the situation, but the hard-throwing Alabama native seems pleased to remain a Brave.
“Obviously our expectations are still going to be high; they’re high every year,” he said. “We don’t play this game and hope to come in second. We play this game to come in first. That’s going to be our expectations and our goal, and it’s going to be fun to get to know the guys we’re going to do it with.”
Kimbrel has converted 42 or more saves in each of his four full seasons in the majors, including 97 in 105 opportunities over the past two seasons. He has a remarkable 1.43 ERA and 476 strikeouts in 289 innings as a major league pitcher.
He’s has raised the bar so high that some characterized his 2014 season as lackluster — even though he posted a 1.61 ERA again led the NL in saves (47), including a 0.84 ERA with 26-of-26 saves converted in 32 appearances after June 21.
Kimbrel wasn’t satisfied because the disappointing Braves missed the playoffs with a 79-83 record and because he wasn’t perfect. Yes, perfection remains a goal for Kimbrel, even if he’s old enough to know better.
“If I have 50 opportunities, I expect to get 50 saves,” he said. “That’s not going to change. I’m not going to go out there and say, if I blow one or two or three, it’s OK as long as I don’t blow more than that. That’s not my goal. My goal is to be perfect. The likelihood of that is slim, but it’s still my goal.”
Kimbrel has been the Braves’ closer for four seasons, longer than any other closer has been with his current team. He got a four-year, $42 million contract a year ago during spring training, which has a fifth-year option at $13 million for 2018.
When the Braves’ offseason roster makeover was in full swing, many were convinced Kimbrel was on the way out. Their reasoning: having the game’s best closer is a luxury for a team that’s not going to contend, and the Braves would be better suited trading him for more young talent.
The Braves said publicly they had no intention of trading Kimbrel. Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said they hoped to build around him for many years to come.
Some skeptics think that was posturing, and believe the Braves will hold onto Kimbrel only until a contender makes an overwhelming offer, at which point Hart will say they didn’t plan to trade Kimbrel but got an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Kimbrel’s contract was among five multi-year extensions worth a guaranteed $280.7 million that were handed out by then-Braves general manager Frank Wren to young players during 17-day spree last February. Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Julio Teheran and Jason Heyward were the others who got extensions then, and third baseman Chris Johnson got one in May to send the price tag to more than $300 million for six players.
Kimbrel’s contract was notable because it came in a period when most teams have begun to view relievers as ephemeral, too prone to injury or performance decline to warrant long-term deals.
Wren and Heyward are gone now, but the other players who got extensions survived a Braves offseason featuring nine trades, including deals that sent away three of the team’s top four hitters from 2014: Justin Upton, Evan Gattis and Heyward.