Orioles Sign Craig Kimbrel

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

All things considered, Craig Kimbrel’s sole season with the Phillies was pretty productive: 71 appearances, 69 innings, a 3.26 ERA, and a strikeout rate of 33.8%. Kimbrel saved 23 games in the regular season, plus the All-Star Game, plus three more in the playoffs. But the last meaningful impression he made in red pinstripes was an abject and total loss of command that cost the Phillies at least Game 4 of the NLCS, and probably Game 3 as well. Given that context, it’s not surprising Dave Dombrowski’s outfit is moving on.

Kimbrel’s new home? A team that, in Game 2 of the ALDS, scored eight runs and lost because its pitchers walked 11 batters — one short of the record for a nine-inning playoff game.

The Baltimore Orioles will be Kimbrel’s eighth stop on a road that will likely terminate in Cooperstown, and it’s fair to expect that by October this will be the sixth team for which Kimbrel will have appeared in the playoffs. At $13 million, the one-year deal represents a significant investment for the low-payroll Orioles. Not just in salary for Kimbrel, but because any trip from Philadelphia to Baltimore involves paying a fortune to drive the Delaware Turnpike.

Baltimore’s bullpen was important and effective in 2023, but perhaps not as special as the Félix BautistaYennier Cano two-headed monster would lead you to believe. Baltimore finished sixth in the league in reliever ERA- and seventh in reliever WPA, but threw just 575 1/3 innings. That has quite a bit to do with the underrated stability of the Orioles’ rotation. Five different Baltimore pitchers threw 100 or more innings and made 20 or more starts; the Giants, who led the league with more than 700 reliever innings, had just two such starting pitchers.

But about 10.6% of Baltimore’s reliever innings last season came from Bautista, who suffered an elbow injury in August. That’s important for two reasons: First, Bautista ate up that enormous chunk of Baltimore’s reliever workload (he led the team in gmLI and finished third in innings) despite missing the last five weeks of the regular season. Second, Bautista is going to miss all of 2024 while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The Orioles have plenty of internal options to consume those innings: Cano, Danny Coulombe, Cionel Pérez, one or both of Tyler Wells and DL Hall, and a certain high-volume reliever who was cruelly left off the playoff roster. But you can never have enough arms, particularly when the team is built for manager Brandon Hyde to play matchups the way he does.

But here’s the thing. Since he left Atlanta after the 2014 season, Kimbrel has been acquired by five teams that made the playoffs. The Cubs never gave him a playoff game to save. The White Sox acquired him as a complement to Liam Hendriks, and the only playoff save situation he faced was 1/3 of an inning of setup work, for which he received a hold. The other three teams — the Red Sox, Dodgers, and Phillies — acquired Kimbrel to close, but when crunch time came around, they didn’t really trust him.

The 2018 Red Sox used Kimbrel nine times and went 8-1 in those playoff games; Kimbrel finished every win he appeared in and did not factor in the loss. But Kimbrel also allowed at least one run in his first four save opportunities, even though he hung on to win each of them. In his last appearance, Game 4 of the World Series, he entered with Boston up five runs and allowed the first two batters he faced to score. When the time came to get the last out of the season, Alex Cora called Chris Sale out of the ‘pen, not Kimbrel.

The Phillies made little secret of the fact that while Kimbrel was the nominal closer, José Alvarado was the team’s no. 1 high-leverage reliever, and Kimbrel could appear in situations other than the ninth inning if a matchup suited him. And until that horrendous two-night engagement in Arizona, it worked. But much of Rob Thomson’s bullpen usage was determined by the possibility that Kimbrel might come in and just not have it, and by the time anyone could do anything about it, Kimbrel might have allowed two baserunners and thrown 25 pitches already. One of my most vivid memories of the 2023 postseason was watching Kimbrel come in for mop-up duty in Game 6 of the NLCS, with his closer entrance music and lighting package in full effect, as he got booed by a crowd that had seen quite enough of him to that point.

And it could’ve been worse! The 2022 Dodgers, who acquired Kimbrel to be their closer, demoted him from the role in September and didn’t even bother to put him on the playoff roster.

So why in the hell are the Orioles, who suffered bullpen problems of their own in the playoffs, bringing this guy in?

There are a few reasons. First, this is a future Hall of Famer who is two seasons removed from posting a 2.26 ERA, a 2.32 FIP, and a strikeout rate in the 40s. Smart, forward-thinking teams (and the White Sox) keep talking themselves into being able to get the best out of Kimbrel. Dombrowski lived through his shaky 2018 postseason, and then signed him to close for another team with World Series ambitions.

Second, Kimbrel is sort of the reliever version of Kyle Gibson, another pitcher who recently completed a tour of the Crab Fry Belt. That’s not to say the two pitchers are anything alike stylistically; far from it. But there are pitchers you need to get you through the regular season, and then there are pitchers who can win in the playoffs. And there is less overlap between the two than you might think.

What the Orioles should expect from Kimbrel is a lot of innings for a reliever, a lot of strikeouts, and quite a bit more agita than would be ideal in save situations. But Baltimore has a very good lineup and enough starting pitching depth that it’s unlikely that Kimbrel will be needed in 40 one-run save situations, or to go multiple innings, or to stomp out rallies with men on base. Last season, Thomson was mostly able to confine Kimbrel to situations he could handle; and if he could do it, Hyde can too.

I don’t think you can spin Kimbrel’s recent inconsistency as a positive, but at this point it’s what one notable philosopher once referred to as a “known unknown.” It’s something the Orioles would’ve accounted for before signing Kimbrel to be their closer. And if it ends as poorly for them as it did for the Phillies — i.e. a blown save that leaves them needing to win two home games to go to the World Series — that would go down as the Orioles’ best season in 40 years. They just might grow a few more gray hairs along the way.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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CC AFCmember
4 months ago

Ok, Baltimore fans, you can polish the pitchforks but don’t break them out yet until we’re sure this is the only thing they’re going do all offseason.

4 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

It’s such a weird move to make if it’s the only move. It’s a great move to make if you’re a team that will spend a lot.