Elias on Kimbrel: "I think it's a great deal for all sides"

NASHVILLE – The Orioles began negotiations with closer Craig Kimbrel on the first night of the general managers meetings. They reached agreement with him Monday night and signed him earlier today after he passed a physical.

They identified their target and hit the bull's eye.

Kimbrel receives $12 million in 2024 and has a $1 million buyout on a $13 million club option. He’s tabbed as the replacement for Félix Bautista.

“I think he brings what he does to this team,” said executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias. “He is one of the best closers in baseball history at this point. He’s still got a lot in the tank and he had a really solid season (this) year and we see a lot of things from a scouting perspective going forward that has us placing a pretty big bet that this guy’s going to have a really good season for us.”

The first conversation that Elias had at the GM meetings involved Kimbrel’s representative.

“I just think it was that obvious of a fit,” he said. “We’ve got this really great team, great roster, that’s missing its closer because of injury. We’ve got a guy who loves pitching leverage innings and closing out games, and he loves winning, and he saw a team that could use him, so we talked early.

“Obviously, it took a while to get the deal and the finances figured out, which is normal, but we had a nice meeting with Craig, with (manager) Brandon Hyde, and it was pretty clear that we wanted him and he wanted to come join this Orioles team. So, I think it’s a great deal for all sides.

“I think an important feature for us is we do have a club option for 2025, so if this turns out to be a good fit, I think that’s going to be nice for us. I think both parties are entering this arrangement with the spirit of this potentially being a two-year thing. We’re optimistic about it. I feel way more structured when we think about our bullpen now to have Craig in there, and the plan is for him to be the closer, and we were very clear about that when we signed him and that’s what we want him to do. It doesn’t mean Brandon’s not going to use him to face the middle of the order in a tie game in the eighth inning. You know how it goes. But he’ll be leading the pack there from the back end of the bullpen.

Being a mentor also factored into the Orioles pursuit of Kimbrel, who ranks eighth in baseball history in saves with 417 and is a nine-time All-Star with playoff experience.

“It’s not a huge part of why we’re doing this, but it’s something nice that our young bullpen is lacking,” Elias said. “He was a priority for us to figure out a deal with him because we thought it was kind of the right guy at the right time, and the right fit for us.”

Kimbrel registered a 3.26 ERA and 1.043 WHIP with 23 saves in 71 appearances and averaged 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings. He was able to maintain his mid-90s fastball velocity.

"I don’t think the Phillies get where they got without him,” Elias said. “He had a really solid year. He was an All-Star. His first half was spectacular. The stuff is still great, which is just remarkable when you look at how long he’s been doing this and how rigorous this job is. And he posts. He’s thrown a lot of innings the last couple years, and this is a guy that shows up and knows exactly how to go about his business and how to do it.

“We liked what we saw in 2022 with him. We weren’t really in the market. But 2023 was a step up for him both in terms of stuff and performance, and our outlook with him ticked up after what he did.”

Kimbrel also balances a bullpen that's stocked with left-handers, especially if DL Hall works in a relief role.

"We were a little shorter on the right-handed side," Elias said, "so Craig kind of adds to that. But he's kind of platoon-neutral. He can handle left-handed batters."

Elias is pivoting back to starters on the free-agent and trade markets, with the latter still viewed as a more likely resolution at the moment. Progress was made in gathering information and in discussions, which also eliminated suitors.

“Not that we’re closer to a deal, but we have a more refined understanding of what the possibilities of the deals are right now, and just kind of moving the football down the field a couple yards at a time, which sounds pretty mundane, but it’s honestly a lot of work in this business to do that,” he said.

“A lot of conversations. You’re checking with agents, you’re checking with teams, you’re going back and forth. It’s a big puzzle that you’re trying to put together, and the Winter Meetings help with that.

“I think having Kimbrel signed now and official, we could still bolster our bullpen with trades or free-agent signings and we’ll be continuing to explore that, but it definitely puts us in a mindset of a little more comfort with what we have there. … We’re able to turn our attention to this vast starting pitching market, the possibilities, and chip away at those conversations.”

Kimbrel becomes the biggest free-agent signing at the meetings, receiving the largest contract since Elias was hired in November 2018.

“Hopefully, everyone had that on their bingo card,” Elias said.

“It’s kind of nice to have something to talk about at these Winter Meetings. We don’t force this stuff while we’re here but it’s nice to go home with one of our big wish-list items under the tree.”

Note: Max Wagner, the No. 14 prospect in the system per MLB Pipeline, underwent surgery today to excise a fractured hook of hamate in his left hand.

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