There are plenty of things to hope for from the Orioles — leveraging their prospect depth for top-end starting pitching, contract extensions for literally any of their young stars, a reasonable and snappy resolution to a stadium lease we were misled into believing was complete.
Then there are the things we can expect of them: one-year deals for veterans, among the safest and surest transactions a baseball team can make. They might not be the highest-upside plays, but they often fill a need, have few long-term ramifications on roster construction, and allow flexibility in other areas.
The $13 million deal for closer Craig Kimbrel fits neatly into that bucket, but it comes with a risk the Orioles aren’t necessarily used to. There are two types of closers — ones who get the job done and ones who lose their jobs. So to put this kind of money into one player, even one with the track record and attractive statistical profile of Kimbrel, at a premium position creates a level of risk that banking on 180 useful innings from Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles never carried.
On a basic level, and this is admittedly faint praise, signing Kimbrel for the closer spot is the continuation of what the Orioles have done well in free agency under general manager Mike Elias: fill targeted needs adequately with one-year deals for veterans. (This is also the only thing they’ve done to this point in free agency, which is not worth applauding.)
In the bad old years, when they had no infield talent to speak of at the major league level, it was signing veterans such as José Iglesias and Freddy Galvis to play a decent shortstop and be an adult in the room. More recently, the adult-in-the-room job was assigned to a member of the starting rotation in the form of Lyles and Gibson, although Adam Frazier helped fill that specific need at second base in 2023 as well.
All those deals worked out somewhere on the spectrum of fine and good; Mychal Givens as a veteran reliever for 2023 did not.
There are no signs of decline in Kimbrel’s peripherals, which is good. He was an All-Star for the ninth time in 2023, striking out 12.3 batters per nine with a 1.043 WHIP with the Phillies. He converted saves at an 82% clip (23 of 28), and the man he’s replacing, injured Orioles All-Star Félix Bautista, converted 85% (33 of 39). Kimbrel has a reputation for some white-knuckle outings, but over the course of his career he has closed out nearly nine in 10 saves (89%). His fastball and curveball remain strikeout weapons to help achieve whatever Orioles manager Brandon Hyde asks of him in the ninth inning next year.
However, these are a lot of proverbial eggs in the basket of a pitcher who will be 36 for most of next season. There are the inherent health risks that come with any pitcher, and there’s also the potential that Kimbrel’s proclivity for walks and hard contact make this the year his performance falls off for good.
Yennier Cano showed the ability to fill in for Bautista and will likely get the opportunity if Kimbrel doesn’t prove to be the answer.
Other developments at these winter meetings point to an improved Orioles bullpen in 2024 compared to the one that ended 2023.
Dillon Tate’s absence in the seventh and eighth innings was a massive blow to last year’s Orioles, and Elias saying the club expects him to be healthy in 2024 will be incredibly helpful as Hyde pieces together the end of games. So, too, would the consistent presence of either Tyler Wells or DL Hall, one of whom may be pushed out of the rotation by the front-end addition the Orioles are seeking.
That the Orioles tacked on a club option for $13 million for 2025 for Kimbrel only adds to the potential upside of the deal. Trading Kimbrel next summer would only be a byproduct of an absolute disaster for the 2024 Orioles, the likes of which are hard to envision. But if Bautista recovers well and other back-end arms emerge, Kimbrel could be a valuable trade chip next fall or during the 2025 season if he pitches well in Baltimore.
All that is for the future, though. Right now, the Orioles are coming home from the winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee, with one of two offseason priorities checked off their list. The other one looms large. But, where Kimbrel is concerned, they filled their closer need with the type of moderate-risk, one-year free agent deal that has been in their comfort zone.
Now, on to that rotation upgrade — which will surely require them to step out of that.