Will Craig Kimbrel be the Next Braves Closer?

The Braves always appear to be a team that is looking for a player to close out tight games.  This season they used both Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, unable to settle on which would be the best solution to their problems.  Could a long-term answer be sitting on their doorstep?

Selected in the third round of the 2008 draft (he was originally selected in the thirty-third round in 2007, but failed to sign), Craig Kimbrel made quick work of the minor leagues in 2009.  He pitched across four levels, finishing the season without giving up a run over two innings at Triple-A.

He was impressive overall, but there is one big red flag hanging over him…  his control.  Overall he walked 6.61 batters per nine innings in 2009, a number that makes it impossible to trust him in the latter innings.  While it’s a glaring issue, it may be the only one to consider at this point.

Baseball America recently described him by saying:

“Kimbrel has the stuff and mentality to be a big league closer. He aggressively challenges hitters with his plus-plus fastball, which sits at 93-95 mph, touches 98 and has nasty life. He also throws an above-average breaking ball that he calls a curveball but looks more like a slider. He flashes a deceptive changeup, though he rarely used it in 2009.”

He proved that his stuff is electric, striking out nearly 15 batters per nine innings last season.  While that was mostly against batters at the lower levels on the minors, a number that big is impressive nonetheless.

Couple that with being a groundball pitcher makes him that much more effective.  Last season he posted a groundball rate of 48.8%, a number that would put him among the Top 20 pitchers in the Major Leagues (among those who qualified).  He translated that into a HR/9 of 0.28 and a HR/FB of 5.6%, both numbers that are solid for late inning relievers.

The right-handed thrower was deadly against righties, who hit just .105 against him.  Lefties were significantly better, though I wouldn’t call the .204 average they posted against him anything to brag about.

The bottom line with him is throwing strikes.  If he can do it, he is going to be the Braves closer sooner rather than later.  While it wouldn’t be surprising to see him make his debut at some point in 2010, it is hard to imagine him getting handed a significant role unless he puts the control together in a flash, which hasn’t happened in the AFL (where he’s walked seven in seven innings).

Long-term he’s a good option to keep an eye on, so keep his name in mind.  You just never know how desperate the Braves are going to get.

What do you think?  When do you think he’ll become the Braves closer?

To read the previous article, click here.

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