Craig Kimbrel averaged 46 saves over his first four seasons, the most of any closer to start their career.
Jason Getz/Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
The longest-tenured closer in baseball sat at his locker in Turner Field and cracked a sly smile when discussing his offseason training.
Instead of throwing at his Huntsville, Ala., high school like he had done for years, Craig Kimbrel would instead go out to the barn on his new farm to loosen up that right arm that has delivered 185 saves the last four seasons.
"I’ve had the best throwing partner I’ve ever had, it’s called a net," the Braves’ four-time All-Star closer said. "He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t get his wrist caught up or his ankles don’t get bruised."
In an offseason of change, Atlanta’s bullpen was among the hardest hit. Just three members of those that comprised the 2014 Opening Day roster enter the spring on the 40-man, Kimbrel, Luis Avilan and Ian Thomas.
"Yeah, there has been a lot of change, there’s no denying that," Kimbrel said. "It’s exciting."
And it’s created a slew of pressing issues for the relievers as FOXSportsSouth.com’s Burning Question series continues.
Entering his fourth full season as the Braves’ stopper, Kimbrel has held that spot longer than anyone in baseball, with no other team’s current closer entrenched for more than three years.
During that run he’s set a standard, averaging 46 saves in racking up a total that’s 26 more than any other player in their first four seasons in the majors.
But with the Braves projected to have as few as 71 wins (FanGraphs) and as high as 73 1/2 (Atlantis sports book), can Kimbrel continue that level of output?
Granted, he had 47 saves in ’14 on a 79-win team, but he made just eight appearances in September, his fewest since assuming the role. If Kimbrel is given fewer opportunities, well, he says it will call for perfection.
"If I get 25 opportunities, I expect to get 25 saves. If I get 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 ‘Well, if I blow one or two it’s OK as long as I don’t do any 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."
But if the forecasts for Atlanta’s wins total hold true, the odds are against Kimbrel.
Just twice in the last four seasons has anyone saved 42 or more games on a team that won 73 or less games as Heath Bell had 42 on a 71-win Padres team in 2011 and the 67-95 Royals saw Joakim Soria notch 43 saves in ’10.
The last two seasons, the Braves followed the typical gameplan of Jordan Walden and David Carpenter giving way to Kimbrel. But now Walden is in St. Louis and Carpenter is a Yankee, and Shae Simmons, who looked to be the heir apparent to step into the role as Kimbrel’s table-setter is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
So now, Fredi Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell will look toward their offseason acquisitions, which includes a pair of former All-Star closers in Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson.
The duo is one of a number of former closers the Braves inked this winter, along with Matt Capps and Jose Veras, who can add more power arms to Kimbrel’s and bring the mentality of someone who has operated in high-leverage situations.
"It is a luxury. It’s a luxury because during the course of the year, and I think we’ve all seen it, is that you can close games early in the game," McDowell said. "You can close games in the sixth inning, seventh inning, eighth inning and to have those guys with the backend of the bullpen experience, I think, is great for us to be able to have those guys down there and be able to trust those guys.
"We saw it the last two years with Jordan Walden, having that guy, and Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters and those guys that have pitched (in) the backend of a bullpen and when you’re able to put those guys in situations sixth, seventh inning and eighth inning, it’s a comforting feeling."
Grilli, though, is coming off a down year in which the right-hander had a 4.00 ERA with the Pirates and Angels, though he did have 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings after going to Los Angeles. Likewise, Johnson had his issues in ’14, posting a career-worst 7.09 ERA in Oakland and Detroit, but the righty is two years removed from back-to-back 50-save seasons.
The duo appears to be the most logical table-setters for Kimbrel, two moves that could be worth the risk in situations where they’re no longer asked to produce saves.
"They’re experienced. They’ve played the game for a while and to bring those guys in, I think … you know, (with) (Anthony Varvaro, who is now in Boston) and Carp and Walden, and those guys (gone), the bullpen is going to be a little different," Kimbrel said. "But different’s not always bad. We’ve done well down there the last few years and been successful and we don’t expect that to change."
Aside from Kimbrel, Luis Avilan is the only returning piece of last year’s bullpen that appeared in more than 22 games. But the lefty was sent down to the minors and never regained his consistency with a 4.57 ERA in just 43 1/3 innings.
There’s no guarantee that Avilan makes the 25-man roster, especially with the Braves bringing in Josh Outman, who allowed lefties to hit .169 in 68 plate appearances last season.
The long relief role, now that David Hale having been traded to the Rockies, is likely to go to James Russell, the one-time lefty specialist, who had a 2.22 ERA in 22 games last season and was this winter being touted as an option as the fifth starter.
If we’re expecting the Braves to carry seven relievers, that gives us Kimbrel, Grilli, Johnson, Outman and Russell as locks. The guess here is that Veras (3.03 ERA in 34 games with the Astros to end ’14) fills one of the open spots, with Avilan, Michael Kohn and Arodys Vizcaino fighting for the other.