The Orioles were never finding the perfect replacement for injured All-Star closer Felix Bautista — if one even exists.
Short of chairman John Angelos suddenly opening his checkbook for a multiyear deal approaching $100 million for five-time All-Star lefty Josh Hader, the one-year, $13 million deal — that includes a club option for 2025 — given to the 35-year-old Craig Kimbrel was about as good as anyone should have anticipated. After all, this marks the third straight offseason in which general manager Mike Elias has added a veteran pitcher on a one-year contract in early December after signing Jordan Lyles for $7 million two winters ago and inking Kyle Gibson to a $10 million contract last year. Despite little enthusiasm for either of those moves at the time, Lyles and Gibson did their job and pitched as well as Elias or anyone could have reasonably projected.
As the adage goes, there’s really no such thing as a bad one-year contract.
But unlike those additions designed to simply eat innings and raise the floor of a developing starting rotation for clubs with modest expectations, the stakes are much higher with this signing. After winning 101 games and finishing with the AL’s best record, the Orioles certainly don’t want to take a step back in 2024 despite Bautista being expected to miss the entire season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. The bullpen mostly held it together after Bautista injured his elbow in late August and isn’t devoid of late-inning upside, but adding some high-leverage experience and more swing-and-miss ability was a clear priority.
With nine All-Star selections, 417 saves, and a career strikeout rate of 14.2 per nine innings, Kimbrel definitely provides that. Even in a 2023 season in which he wasn’t Philadelphia’s exclusive closer, Kimbrel registered 23 saves, which nearly equaled the career total for Baltimore’s entire bullpen (25) last postseason. The right-hander’s 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings last year bested anyone not named Bautista in the Orioles bullpen, and his 3.7 walks per nine frames matched his career average. Despite a career-high 10 home runs allowed and a rough opening two months of 2023, Kimbrel’s 3.26 season ERA and 1.043 WHIP were improvements from his underwhelming 2022 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But as is the case with most relievers, red flags and volatility exist, beginning with his poor performance against Arizona in the NL championship series. For a 2024 Orioles club that will be judged on its ability to take the next step in October — assuming they make it back there, of course — signing an aging closer with a history of postseason struggles even preceding last year was going to draw some scorn. At the same time, making roster decisions based solely on a handful of games — even in the NLCS — isn’t the way any smart organization operates.
Kimbrel is far from the elite closer he was with the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox years ago, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be of great use to the Orioles, who still have All-Star setup man Yennier Cano as well as lefty relievers Danny Coulombe and Cionel Perez in the mix. Even more intriguing would be the potential for a full season of lefty DL Hall and right-hander Tyler Wells in the bullpen, but that will depend on the remainder of the offseason, which is how we should really judge the Kimbrel signing. If adding a 35-year-old closer is the most significant move of the winter, Elias and ownership will have failed a talented young roster that’s more than deserving of some outside reinforcements to help take the next step in 2024.
Whether through trade or free agency, the Orioles acquiring a legitimate starter for the top half of the rotation not only makes them better in that regard, but it increases the likelihood of being able to deploy both Hall and Wells as relievers all season. That would add to the bullpen’s overall ceiling and could afford manager Brandon Hyde more late-inning options to avoid leaning too much on Kimbrel, whose 69 innings last season were his most since 2017. No matter your opinion on the signing or how great Bautista was last season, having multiple high-leverage options maximizes any club’s chances over a six-month season and in October.
In the same way the Orioles have been able to tweak lesser-known relievers into becoming legitimate contributors, Elias and the baseball operations department wouldn’t be making their biggest financial commitment yet if there wasn’t a high degree of confidence in both Kimbrel and their ability to maximize his remaining talents — which still include a mid-90s fastball and above-average curveball — in his 15th major league season. That said, one only hopes this goes better than the trade deadline acquisitions of Jack Flaherty and Shintaro Fujinami that totally flopped.
Unlike the one-year contracts of the last two Decembers, the Orioles have much more riding on the veteran closer’s performance in 2024.
There’s still much to like about Kimbrel, but the volatility is tough to ignore, especially when it was on full display last October.