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NASHVILLE—This was a much different Winter Meetings for the Orioles. They came away with a free agent, reliever Craig Kimbrel, and for the first time in 18 years didn’t make a pick in the Rule 5 draft.
The deal with Kimbrel provides the Orioles with an experienced closer to replace Félix Bautista for 2024, and it was one void they absolutely had to fill.
Kimbrel will join left-handers Danny Coulombe and Cionel Pérez and right-hander Yennier Cano in the back end of the bullpen. It’s possible that left-hander DL Hall and perhaps right-hander Tyler Wells will join the group.
The reported $13 million annual salary for Kimbrel is the highest the Orioles have given out in the five years that Mike Elias has been running baseball operations.
Kimbrel also has a reported $13 million option for 2025 or a $1 million buyout.
Now, attention can return to adding a starting pitcher, either by trade or free-agent signing.
“It’s also the area 29 other teams are looking for every single year,” Elias said on Tuesday. “It’s very competitive out there.”
While it’s competitive, the Orioles, who once offered opportunity as a selling point, are now able to add winning. Getting a starting pitcher to join a 101-win, American League East-winning team is easier than it was after a combined 218 losses in 2019 and 2021.
“It’s been really refreshing, and it’s such an easy conversation for Brandon Hyde and I to explain why this is a good place to come play, particularly on the pitching side,” Elias said. “I know we haven’t gone bonkers with pitching free-agent acquisitions since we moved the [left-field] wall back. Even just bringing Jordan Lyles or a Kyle Gibson in on short-term contracts and having them have some of the better years of their careers and then go back out into the market and parlay that into better dollars, that’s a first for the Orioles’ franchise historically.”
Kimbrel has nine seasons of postseason experience, and that could come in handy for a club that lost three straight in the American League Division Series to the Texas Rangers.
“It’s obviously a very pleasant, exciting clubhouse vibe,” Elias said. “It’s just all things positive. In terms of intangibles, I think we have a lot going for us. It’s really just competing on a contract that remains something that’s competitive in our business, and not easy to do.
“I do feel like we’ve got a really attractive destination from a baseball sense now, which is really nice to have that under our belts.”
Kimbrel has 417 saves, eighth on the career list, and just three saves behind Kenley Jansen, the leader among active players.
There were few transactions at the Winter Meetings, and the player who wasn’t there, Shohei Ohtani, and his indecision about his next destination could be holding up business for everyone else.
“It would probably be the best theory I could have for why this seems to be a slower developing kind of Winter Meetings,” Elias said. “When you’ve got a Babe Ruth talent, pretty big deal. There are some really big teams that seem like they’re focused almost entirely on him right now and that, by nature, is going to clog things up.”
Even though Kimbrel has an option for 2025, the Orioles still haven’t signed a free agent to a multi-year contract. Lyles’ deal had an option for 2023, which was declined.
“We’ve been entertaining it. We entertained it last year,” Elias said. “I think we’ve got a lot of returning position players, basically one through nine are returning, and a lot of those guys are around for years and years, so it puts us in a little bit of a unique spot where we don’t really need to run around, filling out our position-player profile on multi-year deals right now because we have so many homegrown core guys. Then it’s more of a case-by-case basis if you’re talking about pitchers.
“We’ve been in those conversations, obviously haven’t done one of those yet. It’s been on the menu for a while now and we’ve gotten really close on some of them. I’m sure that will happen at some point.”
Elias was asked several times at the Winter Meetings about extending young players. On Monday, the Milwaukee Brewers signed 19-year-old outfielder Jackson Chourio, who has yet to play in the majors, to an eight-year, $82 million contract.
“I think it’s great when you can do it and when both sides come together on stuff like that, and it’s still relatively infrequent because it’s hard,” Elias said. “You’re talking about two sides mutually sharing risk and sharing reward — years and years and years and years and years out. It’s a difficult thing to line up. I applaud players and front offices any time it happens.”
Elias reiterated that he won’t talk about negotiations publicly, but in theory he likes the idea.
“I think it would be wonderful if we have an announcement like that at some point,” Elias said. “It’s definitely on the long list of methods to keep the franchise healthy.”
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