Kimbrel 'on board' to embrace uncharted role

January 6th, 2023

PHILADELPHIA -- Craig Kimbrel knows what it takes for a team to win a World Series -- and he sees that potential in the 2023 Phillies.

Kimbrel, who was introduced by the Phillies on Thursday after signing a one-year deal, was the closer for the 2018 World Series champion Red Sox. That Boston team -- which was run by now-Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski -- had come up short in both the '16 and '17 postseasons.

"Seeing a team fight hard and get to that point and then come up just short, I've been on enough of those teams to be able to say, 'Hey that team was good enough and it looks like they're going to have that opportunity again,'" Kimbrel told reporters on Zoom. "When I look at the Phillies, that's what I saw. At this point in my career, I want to win championships -- and this team can do that."

Kimbrel not only wants to help the reigning NL champions take the next step, but he wants to be part of the city's next iconic moment. Though he won a ring in Boston, Kimbrel did not pitch in the decisive game in the 2018 World Series. It was instead Game 1 starter Chris Sale who recorded the final three outs in Game 5 against the Dodgers.

"Big picture every year coming in is to be the last team on the field, to be able to dogpile on whoever's throwing that last pitch. Not to lie, I still do want to throw that last pitch," Kimbrel said. "It's always been a goal of mine. It's something I've dreamed of as a kid."

That said, Kimbrel wasn't made any promises as it relates to the closer role.

Not only does manager Rob Thomson prefer not to have an anointed closer, but Kimbrel is joining a relief corps that already features late-inning options in Seranthony Domínguez and José Alvarado. Matt Strahm, Connor Brogdon and Andrew Bellatti are expected to see important work in the late innings, too.

"Not to say [Kimbrel] won't close games or saying that can't happen, but it was important to discuss beforehand," Dombrowski said. "We feel like we have the makings of a real good bullpen. We have quite a few guys who can pitch with a one-run lead late in the game, which we think is extremely important.”

While Kimbrel acknowledged that he's open to pitching in any role, it's hard to ignore his status as one of the best closers in MLB history. He ranks seventh on the all-time saves list with 394 and enters 2023 with a chance to join the 400-save club, which features only Mariano Rivera (652), Trevor Hoffman (601), Lee Smith (478), Francisco Rodríguez (437), John Franco (424) and Billy Wagner (422).

“I would say I do understand that it's a very honoring achievement, if I can get there,” Kimbrel said. “And I do expect to get there. But I'm not focusing on any number of saves or what position I'm going to be in. I'm just focusing on helping the team any way I can and I think good things will come from that.”

Kimbrel is coming off a 2022 season in which he posted a 3.75 ERA and was removed from the closer's role by Dodgers manager Dave Roberts in late September. That came after similar late-season struggles with the White Sox in '21.

The Phillies, however, came away from a meeting with Kimbrel -- one that included pitching coach Caleb Cotham and director of pitching development Brian Kaplan, among others -- confident that they can fix the eight-time All-Star.

Kimbrel acknowledged that he picked up on a few mechanical issues after the season and he also mentioned learning a couple pitches last year that he plans to bring with him to Philadelphia.

"My goal, just like it is every year, is I'm going to show up and be the best I can be and be the me that everybody expects to see,” Kimbrel said. “A lot of those questions will take care of themselves as we go through Spring Training and the season gets close."

And if Thomson continues spreading out save chances?

"I'm very on board with that,” Kimbrel said. “This game has changed and it will continue to change. If I want to continue to be part of it, that has to be part of the conversation, as well."

That’s the same clubhouse mindset that helped the Phillies win the pennant in 2022. And it’s one that Kimbrel believes will yield even better results in '23.

“The goal is winning a World Series, and that's about it,” Kimbrel said. “If some other things are achieved in between there, I'll be happier than anything, but if not -- if we can go all the way, that's all that matters.”