Kimbrel still a Brave; that’s a good thing, right?

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Craig Kimbrel's four years as Braves closer is the longest among any major league closer with his current team. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

 

When Braves pitchers and catchers report to spring training Friday, closer Craig Kimbrel will again be among them. I know this surprises a lot of you, right? You told us as much in recent weeks.

Craig Kimbrel's four years as Braves closer is the longest among any major league closer with his current team. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

Craig Kimbrel’s four years as Braves closer is the longest among any major league closer with his current team. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

Many fans and media members were convinced that the Braves’ closer would be – or at least should be — shipped out this winter like so many others during the Braves’ rebuilding … er, remodeling project. (Braves officials are careful to avoid using the term rebuild because it has negative connotations  for some, and because the Braves didn’t strip down their roster, although they certainly did more than merely tweak it.)

Top setup men David Carpenter and Jordan Walden were traded. So were relievers Anthony Varvaro and rookie left-hander Chasen Shreve. But not the closer with the big arm and big contract.

This almost seemed to anger some out there. To me, if you’ve got a great closer under contract, and you’re not stripping the house down to the studs and starting fresh, but rather aiming to rebuild while remaining competitive in the next year or two, then it makes some sense to do all you can to make sure precious wins don’t get frittered away in the late innings.

Having a lethal closer and, better yet, proven arms to handle the seventh through ninth innings if needed, is one way to prevent demoralizing defeats for a team that can’t afford to lose games it should win after building a lead. Because it’s going to lose a whole lot of games it should lose. You follow me? I’m saying the comeback wins don’t figure to be abundant this year. So, at least prevent the other team from coming back at your expense. But that’s just my opinion. Maybe you disagree? Then vote in the poll on the left side of the blog.

The other thing is, the Braves don’t intend to be as bad this year as a lot of people think, and they certainly don’t plan on being non-contenders for as long as some believe they will be. They want to be major players in 2017, as in World Series contenders. Don’t know about that, but I think they could be pretty good as soon as ’16 if a few things go their way and a few players develop quickly, such as leadoff man/second baseman Jose Peraza and a few other prospects they acquired this winter, particularly a couple of big-time pitchers.

But anyway, getting back to Kimbrel….

Plenty of folks who don’t know him nevertheless don’t hesitate in offering opinions on what Kimbrel must’ve thought about the situation this winter and opined on what is “fair” to him – or to Freddie Freeman, another who some believe should be traded rather than forced to toil for a non-contender during his prime.

Nonsense. Freeman is being paid quite handsomely to perform, he and his wife like Atlanta, and he’s signed to a fair (for both sides) eight-year contract that runs through 2021, and he’ll be making more than $20 million annually in the last five years of that deal, all of which will come when the Braves are in their new ballpark.

“Yeah, there has been a lot of change, there’s no denying that,” Kimbrel said last week, before offering his take on spring training and the upcoming regular season. “It’s exciting. Going in, obviously guys you spent a lot of time with over the last few years, seeing them with other teams and hoping the best for them. But also getting new teammates and a new team, because we are a new team. It is exciting on that end.

“Obviously our expectations are still going to be high; they’re high every year. We don’t play this game and hope to come in second. We play this game to come in first. That’s going to be our expectations and our goal, and it’s going to be fun to get to know the guys we’re going to do it with.”

The bullpen again figures to be a Braves strength, and could even be quite formidable with former All-Star closers Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson signed as free agents to serve as setup men.

There are question marks about both due to age – Grilli is 38 — and/or past injuries, and it must be noted that Johnson’s performance plummeted from 50-save-a-year level in 2012-2013 to really bad last season, a precarious decline of which we don’t normally see from a guy in such a short period. But he’s only 31, and if he can recapture close to the form he had with Baltimore in 2012-2013, when the 6-foot-6 righty led the majors with 101 saves in that two-year span … well, let’s just say it’s not hard to see where the Braves are trying to go with this. Recall what the Royals did this past fall with their lights-out bullpen trio.

“I was holding the closer’s role in Pittsburgh for a while,” Grilli said, “but the way I look at it, (innings) 6, 7, 8 and 9, I mean the Kansas City Royals proved to the world that now, the way things are going, carbon copies (in the late innings). You’ve got to close the inning, and bullpens are a bigger emphasis in the game now because you can have more than one closer. It doesn’t mean you can’t be one in the sixth, seventh, eighth, you go in and close your inning and get three outs. That’s the mentality you have to have.

“Does everybody want to be the closer? Absolutely. Everybody wants to wear that crown and title. But if you’re not, sometimes the eighth inning is the harder inning. Sometimes the way the lineup rolls over it doesn’t really matter, you’ve just got to go out and get your three outs and keep the chain rolling. You don’t want to let the team down with any inning that you’re getting.”

Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell was asked last week about having a bullpen with three past or present All-Star closers.

“It is a luxury,” McDowell said, “because during the course of the year — I think we’ve all seen it — you can close games early in the game. You can close games in the sixth inning, the seventh inning and the eighth inning. And to have those guys with the back-end-of-the-bullpen experience, I think it’s great for us to be able to have those guys down there and to be able to trust those guys.

“We saw it the last few years with Jordan Walden and Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters, those guys who’ve pitched at the back end of a bullpen. When you’re able to put those guys in situations in the sixth, seventh and eighth inning, it’s a comforting feeling.”

Kimbrel is the primary closer, and nothing is going to change in that regard as long as he’s here and healthy. But on nights when he’s already pitched three consecutive games, or maybe he’s just pitched back-to-back games and is a little sore, then the Braves will have one or two options who’ve closed out big games before. More importantly, though, they could have pitchers who were recently elite closers protecting a one-run lead in the seventh and eighth innings, then turning it over to Kimbrel.

“With Grilli and Johnson, those are two guys who’ve done it,” Kimbrel said. “Johnson got 50 saves back-to-back years, and Grilli’s been in the setup/closer’s role the last few years. And they’re experienced; they’ve played the game for a while. I think to bring those guys in (and lose) Varv and Carp and Walden and those guys, the bullpen’s going to be a little different. But different’s not always bad. We’ve done well down there the last few years and been successful, and we don’t expect that to change.”

Before any of you get carried away, I’m in no way predicting this trio will be as good as the Royals’ back-end trio. No, no, no. That K.C. ‘pen trio was historically dominant for a long stretch. I’m just saying the blueprint, the idea of what the Braves are trying to do, is the same.

And as long as they have Kimbrel, the Braves can feel confident that if they give him a lead, there’s a better than nine-in-10 chance he’s going to close it out.

Kimbrel has converted 42 or more saves in each of his four full seasons in the majors, including 97 saves in 105 opportunities over the past two seasons. He has a remarkable 1.43 ERA and 476 strikeouts in 289 innings as a major league pitcher – more than three times as many strikeouts as hits allowed (153).

He was the 2011 Rookie of the Year after leading all major league relievers with 127 strikeouts. In 2012 he became the first pitcher in baseball’s live-ball era to strike out 50 percent of the batters he faced, fanning 116 of 231.

In 2013, he was the second Brave to have a 50-save season and the youngest (25) in major league history to do it, leading the league with 50 saves and a 1.21 ERA to finish fourth in the Cy Young Award balloting.

He’s so good and has raised the bar so high that some characterized his 2014 season as lackluster by Kimbrel’s standards. This despite the fact that he posted a 1.61 ERA again led the NL in saves (47), including a 0.84 ERA with 26-of-26 saves converted in 32 appearances after June 21.

A modest season by Kimbrel’s standards would’ve been the best season in the career of almost any other closer. Think about that.

But he wasn’t satisfied because he wasn’t perfect. (Although he was certainly a lot better than most anything else about the Braves, particularly down the stretch when a postseason berth was still possible. They missed the playoffs with a 79-83 record.)

For Kimbrel, perfection remains a goal, even if he’s old enough to know better.

“I said it last year — if I get 25 opportunities, I expect to get 25 saves,” he said. “If I have 50 opportunities, I expect to get 50 saves. That’s not going to change. I’m not going to go out there and say, if I blow one or two or three, it’s OK as long as I don’t blow more than that. That’s not my goal. My goal is to be perfect. The likelihood of that is slim, but it’s still my goal.”

Kimbrel has been the Braves’ closer for four full seasons, making him the longest-tenured closer in baseball (no other pitcher has been his current team’s closer for more than three seasons). He got a four-year, $42 million contract a year ago during spring training, a deal that includes a fifth-year option at $13 million for 2018. The deal could be worth more than $59 million with the option and incentives such as All-Star appearances.

Again, let’s go back to the past couple of months and even recent weeks: When the Braves’ offseason roster makeover was in full swing, many were convinced Kimbrel was on the way out. Their reasoning went something like, having the game’s best closer is a luxury for a team that’s not going to contend, and the Braves would be better suited trading him for more young talent like they got in other offseason trades.

That’s apparently not how the Braves viewed it. Or maybe it is. We’ll see eventually. For now, the Braves insist they have no intention of trading Kimbrel, who is signed through at least 2017 with an option for 2018. Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said more than once this winter that they hope to build around Kimbrel for many years to come.

Of course, plenty of skeptics think that was posturing, and some believe the Braves will hold onto Kimbrel only until a contending team makes an overwhelming offer, at which point Hart will explain they didn’t plan to trade Kimbrel but got an offer they couldn’t refuse. I can’t say I blame anyone for thinking that way. After all, didn’t Hart say something similar in the fall about intending to keep Evan Gattis, then turned around and traded him in January?

Kimbrel’s contract was among five multi-year extensions worth a guaranteed $280.7 million that were handed out by then-Braves general manager Frank Wren to young players during 17-day spree last February, a spending frenzy that shocked fans and others unaccustomed to seeing the Braves lock up young talent to long-term contracts the way that many other teams had in recent years.

Freeman got a franchise-record eight-year, $135 million contract; Julio Teheran signed a six-year, $32.4 million deal with a seventh-year option; Andrelton Simmons got a seven-year, $58 million after less than two seasons in the majors, and Jason Heyward signed a two-year, $13.3 million deal.

When Wren gave a three-year, $23.5 million extension to third baseman Chris Johnson in May, it pushed the total to more than $300 in guaranteed money for six players.

That Johnson contract is the one that really had people scratching their heads. But the Kimbrel deal was also notable for this reason: It came at a time when most teams have begun to view relief pitchers as ephemeral roster pieces, too prone to injury or sudden performance decline to warrant lucrative, long-term deals (never mind that overuse is what leads to many, if not most, of those injuries).

Wren and Heyward are gone now, but the five other players signed to longer-term extensions survived the offseason roster churn that featured nine trades, including deals that sent away three of the team’s top four hitters from 2014: Justin Upton, Gattis and Heyward. (The Braves also tried to trade Johnson.)

Wren and his top assistant were fired with a week left in the regular season after the freefalling Braves were eliminated from wild-card contention, and Hart traded Heyward in early November to the Cardinals for starting pitcher Shelby Miller and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins.

The Heyward deal was the first major trade of baseball’s offseason really got things rolling in a dizzying Braves winter in which the refocused team, with its revamped front office, dove full-on into a youth movement aimed at making them a serious contender by the time they move into their new Cobb County ballpark in 2017.

It remains to be seen if they’ll be as good as they hope by then. And it also remains to be seen if Kimbrel will be on the roster in 2017. Or after this coming July 31, for that matter.

Hang on. It’s going  to be an interesting ride, folks.

• Let’s close with this one from the great David Bowie. Seems appropriate for this spring training.

 “CHANGES” by David Bowie

Bowie

Bowie

I still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets
and every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-Changes
Don’t want to be a richer man
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-Changes
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-Changes
Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-Changes
Where’s your shame
You’ve left us up to our necks in it
Time may change me
But you can’t trace time

Strange fascination, fascinating me
Changes are taking the pace
I’m going through

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-Changes
Oh, look out you rock ‘n rollers
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-Changes
Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time


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