Kimbrel raring to be 'part of a winner' in Baltimore

December 7th, 2023

BALTIMORE -- The reason wanted to come to Baltimore? It was simple.

The 35-year-old right-hander, who will go down as one of the greatest closers of all time, wants to win as much as possible before eventually calling it quits. And he sees an opportunity to win a lot with the Orioles, fresh off a 101-61 season and an American League East championship.

“They want to win, and they want to win now,” Kimbrel said during an introductory Zoom call on Thursday afternoon. “I don’t know how many more years I’ve got to do this and go out there and sling the ball. I want to be a part of a winner. I want to be part of a great opportunity and be comfortable doing it, and they provided all of those things for me.”

It also helped that Baltimore had a need for a closer due to a gaping hole at the back of its bullpen. All-Star right-hander Félix Bautista, the winner of the 2023 Mariano Rivera Award for the AL’s top reliever, will miss the entire ‘24 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in October.

Kimbrel -- who will make $12 million next year and has a $13 million team option for 2025 (or a $1 million buyout) -- plans on being a strong fill-in while trying to add to a career saves total that now sits at 417, the eighth most in AL/NL history.

“It’s hard to replace someone like [Bautista], and what he did last year was absolutely spectacular and something no one has ever done before,” Kimbrel said. “To come in and to fill those shoes and keep this team on a good roll, I fully expect to do that. I mean, that’s why I signed here.

“It’s what I’ve been doing my whole career, and I think that’s part of the reason why the Orioles wanted me to come in here and just keep the train rolling and keep the wheels going.”

If Kimbrel is successful with Baltimore, he should continue to climb the all-time saves leaderboard. Kenley Jansen (420) ranks seventh, but he is still pitching for Boston. Kimbrel could pass Billy Wagner (422), John Franco (424) and Francisco Rodríguez (437) in 2024.

Both the Orioles and Kimbrel know he isn’t the exact same type of pitcher he was early in his career, when teams rarely scored against him. The nine-time All-Star and three-team Reliever of the Year Award winner had a 1.43 ERA in 294 appearances for the Braves from 2010-14.

But Kimbrel can still have dominant stretches, and he always embraces getting the ball in the ninth inning. During his lone season with the Phillies in 2023 -- when he had a 3.26 ERA and 23 saves over 71 games -- he was electric during the months of June (0.69 ERA in 13 games), July (1.38 ERA in 13 games) and September (1.50 ERA in 12 games).

“The ninth inning is for me. I love it. It’s everything about who I am,” Kimbrel said. “There are going to be days where I go out there and am going to get punched in the face. That’s not going to define who I am as a pitcher or a player or a person. I understand how there’s an opportunity the next day to make it right.”

Another reason why Kimbrel appealed to Baltimore general manager Mike Elias was the 14-year big league veteran’s ability to serve as a mentor to the pitching staff. The O’s no longer have 36-year-old starter Kyle Gibson, who signed with the Cardinals in free agency and acted as a leader for a young rotation this past season.

“It’s something nice that our young bullpen is lacking,” Elias said. “We thought it was kind of the right guy at the right time, and the right fit for us.”

Kimbrel won a World Series title with Boston in 2018. He pitched in the postseason each year he was with the Red Sox (2016-18), as well as for the Braves (‘10, ‘12, ‘13), the Cubs (‘20), the White Sox (‘21) and the Phillies (‘23).

Many of the primary relievers in the Orioles’ bullpen -- such as All-Star setup man Yennier Cano and lefties Danny Coulombe and Cionel Pérez -- had never experienced the postseason until 2023, when Baltimore got swept in three games by Texas in the AL Division Series.

Kimbrel is ready to try to help get the Orioles deeper into October, and he’ll be willing to share his vast baseball knowledge along the way.

“I sure do get a lot of satisfaction and a lot of happiness from getting to know a lot of these guys who are going to be playing the game for longer than I have and are going to continue to make this game great and fun,” Kimbrel said. “They always say that if you throw some older guys around some youth, you might get a little bit of youth out. I hope that’s the case.”