Like the rest of the baseball world, Craig Kimbrel watched in awe last season as Félix Bautista went from relative unknown to one of the best closers in the league.
Bautista, after spending a decade in the minors, ascended to All-Star levels in 2023. He had a 1.48 ERA at the end of August when pain in his elbow led to Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery and 12 to 16 months on the sideline.
Kimbrel, a nine-time All-Star, knew the Orioles would be on the hunt to replace Bautista this season. Not knowing how much longer he has left in this game — he’s 35 and entering his 15th season — Kimbrel wanted to be on a team that not only needed a closer but also is expected to contend. The Orioles fit the bill, and the two sides agreed to a one-year, $12 million deal on Wednesday with a club option or $1 million buyout for 2025.
“It’s hard to replace someone like him,” Kimbrel said on a Zoom call Thursday from his home outside Nashville, Tennessee. “What he did last year was absolutely spectacular, something no one has done before. To come in and fill those shoes and keep this team on a good roll, I absolutely expect to do that. That’s why I signed here. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole career.”
Kimbrel’s major league career started in Atlanta in 2010 and has taken him to San Diego, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. He’s somewhat familiar with Camden Yards from when he regularly visited with the Red Sox, but he notes that he may like it a bit more now that the left field wall has been moved, making it more pitcher friendly.
His 2023 season in Philadelphia was up and down. He pitched 69 innings and had 23 saves, staying healthy for an entire season. He also was the losing pitcher in Games 3 and 4 of the National League Championship Series as the Phillies lost to the Diamondbacks.
“It’s unfortunate how it ended. It’s terrible,” he said. “I’ve been knocked in the face a few times in my career and been able to get back up and keep going. That’s what I plan on doing. You learn from your mistakes and move forward.”
In Baltimore, he’ll likely be the most experienced member of the bullpen that’s expected to include Yennier Cano, Jacob Webb, Danny Coulombe and Cionel Pérez, with Tyler Wells and DL Hall also in the mix. His 30 innings of playoff experience are more than the rest of the group combined.
“Over the last few years, I’ve understood some of the roles and some of the impacts I can make on other players,” Kimbrel said. “I sure do get a lot of satisfaction and happiness from getting to know these guys who are going to be playing this game for longer than I have and are going to continue to make this game great and fun.”
The Orioles’ early playoff exit last year, when they got swept in three games in the American League Division Series, came in part due to the ripple effect losing Bautista had on their pitching staff. Now they have a new closer in place, one who shares the same goal as them.
“I want to win,” Kimbrel said. “The Orioles want to win. They want to go deep into the playoffs, and that’s the same thing I want.”