Kimbrel: "I want to win and the Orioles want to win"

Craig Kimbrel needed a full minute to unmute himself on this afternoon’s video call with local media, smiling as he worked to solve the issue, the same composure he exhibits with runners on base but minus the stare and distinctive pitching posture.

“There we go,” he finally said. “Perfect start.”

The Orioles are more interested in how he closes.

The pursuit of Kimbrel in free agency was immediate. His representative, David Meter, was the first person by Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias at the general managers meetings in Arizona.  

The cost of doing business was $13 million guaranteed, including the buyout on a $13 million option in 2025. Worth every penny for a team that needed a stopgap while Félix Bautista recovers from Tommy John surgery.

Money talks the loudest, but Kimbrel had other reasons to choose the Orioles. They made him feel seen, and he eventually was heard today reciting motives that don't all pay the bills.

He wants to protect small leads, as he’s done to amass 417 career saves. He wants good teammates and quality surroundings. And he wants a second ring.

“There’s a lot of things,” he said. “When I’m looking for a team, I’m looking for an opportunity. The opportunity is definitely there in Baltimore. I’m looking for comfort for my family. I’m looking for a lot of good character. In conversations I’ve had with them and what I’m looking at from afar, it seems like the character and what they want to do down the road, it definitely lines up with how I view the game and how I want to play.

“They want to win and they want to now. I don’t know how many more years I’ve got to do this and go out there and sling the ball, and I want to be part of a winner, I want to be part of a great opportunity and be comfortable doing it, and they provided all of those things for me.”

Kimbrel turns 36 in May, his 15th season in the majors. The Orioles are his eighth team, and fifth in four years.

There isn't a mute button to prevent him from hearing the clock ticking.

"I don't think the competitor has changed," he said. "I think what I'm using has changed a little bit. My spin rate's still good, the way I move the ball's good, but it's not 100 mph anymore. I'm using 94-96 now. Sometimes, I'll get a little harder and those days are a little easier to pitch, but understanding, I can't pitch like I throw 100 anymore. When you don't do it, you can't pitch that way, so I have that understanding. I've learned a lot about myself. Analytics over the last two years have helped me understand how to transition and use what I have without what I used to have. And that's the beautiful thing about baseball. You don't have to do it the same way forever."

The Orioles always consider leadership qualities when bringing a newcomer into their clubhouse. Kimbrel can lead. He is fine mentoring the younger relievers.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Over the last few years I’ve understood some of the roles and some of the impact I can make on other players, and the things that I can share to hopefully make them better, which makes the team better. Obviously, I still enjoy going out there and competing and I want to get the last out of every game in every opportunity that I get. But I sure do get a lot of satisfaction and a lot of happiness from getting to know a lot of these guys who are going to be playing the game for longer than I have and are going to continue to make this game great and fun. Getting those chances to work with young players, get to learn from them.

“Man, if I’m not still trying to get better, I’m still not trying to learn in this game, I’m not doing something right. Being able to share that and be able to work with young guys, it makes it a lot of fun. They always say, if you throw some older guys around some youth, you might get a little bit of youth out, and I hope that’s the case. I still have fun, I try to have fun every single day, but also teach that when that time comes to be serious, it’s gives it everything you’ve got and don’t leave anything out there when you get that opportunity.”

Kimbrel wore the alternate O’s cap during his call, with others on a shelf behind him. All that was missing was a crab cake and a Natty Boh.

“I want to win and the Orioles want to win,” he said. “They want to go deep in the playoffs. The same thing that I want. So, when you see those commonalities, it just makes a lot of sense, and I couldn’t be more excited.

“To get it done early in the offseason, I’m going to have an opportunity to work with (catcher) James McCann. He lives down the road from me, so being able to get to work with him, we can start as soon as we want.”

The plaudits poured out of McCann yesterday at the Winter Meetings, held near his home just outside of Nashville.

“When he’s on, he’s a lockdown pitcher,” McCann said. “He’s a guy who is intimidating. He’s obviously got the stuff. He’s been doing it for so long. He’s a veteran guy who can come in and (pitch) a lights-out type inning where you know, similar to Bautista, when he’s grabbing the ball, you know the game is over.”

No one intimidated more than the mountainous Bautista, who had 110 strikeouts in 61 innings before the elbow tear. The first-time All-Star who was making a case for Cy Young consideration.

"It's hard to replace someone like him,” Kimbrel said. “What he did last year was absolutely spectacular and something no one’s ever done before. To come in and fill those shoes and keep this team on a good roll, I fully expect to do that. That’s why I signed here, that’s what I’ve been doing my whole career, and I think that’s part of the reason why the Orioles wanted me to come here and just keep the train rolling and keep the wheels going. That’s what I’m coming in to do and I fully expect to do it and do it at the highest level."

The momentum that Kimbrel carried into the playoffs with the Phillies seems to get lost in media and fan narratives that he faltered in the second half, that he became fatigued by appearing in 71 games, his most since being a rookie in 2011. Kimbrel had a 3.09 ERA after the break, lower than the first half, and opponents hit .193 with a .645 OPS. He allowed two earned runs over 12 innings in September.

Three appearances spread over the Wild Card and Division Series rounds netted three scoreless innings and two saves, but he allowed four runs and five hits with four walks over three innings in the Championship Series loss against the Diamondbacks. The lasting memory in some minds and a major contributor to his career 4.50 ERA and 1.433 WHIP in 30 playoff games.

“I was able to stay healthy for all of last year,” he said. “I felt like I was able to do a lot of things on and off the field to be helpful, and the same things that I plan on doing when I come to Baltimore.

“I have a lot of milestones to hit. Being able to close out the All-Star Game, man, that was an experience to do that with my family and have everybody there. It was such a cool year. I made memories. The group of guys that were there were great. When I come to a team, I come in ready to love everybody and to say, ‘I’m here, I’m going to love everybody while I’m here, we’re going to have fun,’ and that group in Philly, we had a lot of fun.

“It was unfortunate how it ended. It’s terrible. Par for the course. People win, people lose, and you always want to be on the winning side of it, but that’s just not the case. Luckily, I’ve been knocked in the face quite a few times in my career and been able to get back up and keep on going, and that’s what I plan on doing. You learn from your mistakes and you move forward and you’re better for it.

“As long as I’ve played this game, my goal is to help carry a team to the playoffs and I still believe that’s going to happen, and it will happen, and I hope it’s this year for the Baltimore Orioles.”

To be trusted in save situations empowers Kimbrel.

“I guess the ninth inning’s for me. I love it. It’s everything about who I am and what I want,” he said.

“I understand there are going to be days where I go out there and get punched in the face, but that’s not going to define who I am as a pitcher or a person. I understand I’m going to have an opportunity the next day to make it right.”

Kimbrel has done his homework on the Orioles and their bullpen. Assurances that he’d close made it easier to choose them, but he isn’t roped off from other innings.

“I understand where we are in this game,” he said. “I understand there are going to be situations and times where I’m going to be asked to do other things. That’s just part of it. But them saying, ‘Hey, we want you to come in and throw the ninth,’ that was something that was a plus. But more than that, I see the team that they have and I see the win opportunity that this team has. I want to be a part of it.

“To me, that was more important than saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to have an opportunity to close out games.’”

Kimbrel has made 14 career appearances at Camden Yards and allowed five runs in 13 1/3 innings. The old left field dimensions.

“As a pitcher, it wasn’t a ballpark that you wanted to go to,” he said. “Looking at it from afar, I haven’t been back since 2018, I haven’t gotten eyes on it myself, but it looks like a much more pitcher-friendly ballpark now, so that’s pretty exciting as well.”

Trey Mancini hit the only home run off Kimbrel in Baltimore, a solo shot to right field with two outs in the ninth inning in the nightcap of an Aug 11, 2018 doubleheader. Kimbrel notched his 34th save.

"Mancini hit me pretty hard a couple times in that ballpark," Kimbrel said, smiling again, his final comments before clicking off the Zoom. "He sure liked peppering that right field wall against me."

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