After rough stretch, Orioles face difficult decision on closer Craig Kimbrel - BaltimoreBaseball.com
Rich Dubroff

After rough stretch, Orioles face difficult decision on closer Craig Kimbrel

Photo Credit: Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports

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Despite the Orioles’ bizarre 7-6 win in 12 innings over the Washington Nationals on Wednesday night, the team’s fans went to bed and woke up sharing their deep concern about closer Craig Kimbrel’s struggles.

Even though Kimbrel has failed to convert save opportunities in four of his last five outings, the Orioles still have a superb 24-12 record heading into their longest homestand of the season.

In those five outings, Kimbrel has allowed six runs on six hits with seven walks and watched his earned-run average skyrocket from 0.82 to 4.23.

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The trouble started two weeks ago on April 26th when Kimbrel walked three and gave up two hits while retiring one batter in a game the Orioles lost, 3-2, in 10 innings to Oakland.

Two days later, Kimbrel had to be pulled after two batters because of an upper back injury. Both batters reached, and again the Orioles lost by a run to the Athletics.

After resting for a few days, Kimbrel returned last Friday in Cincinnati. He struck out the side for a save, and things seemed to return to normal.

But, on Saturday, manager Brandon Hyde removed him in favor of Yennier Cano after three of his four batters reached. Cano got the save against the Reds.

On Wednesday, Kimbrel inherited a 3-1 lead, and retired his first two Nationals hitters before Eddie Rosario homered, and he walked the next two batters. Keegan Akin relieved him, and allowed an inherited runner to score. Three innings later, Jacob Webb finally nailed down the 7-6 win,

Even though Kimbrel didn’t convert on four of five save opportunities, he was credited with a blown save in the first two and holds for the last two. Akin was charged with the blown save on Wednesday, even though it was Kimbrel’s runner who scored.

After the game, Oriole manager Brandon Hyde endorsed Kimbrel.

“We’re going to stick with him,” he said. “This guy’s got a big-time track record. He’s a Hall of Famer, and we need to get him right, He’s big for us. It’s important that we get him right.”

It would have been a surprise if Hyde said anything other than that. The Orioles spent $12 million on Kimbrel, with a $1 million buyout, to be the team’s closer because Félix Bautista, the best reliever in the American League last season, won’t pitch this season after getting Tommy John surgery last October. Kimbrel also has a $13 million option for 2025.

Fans want the Orioles to cut ties with Kimbrel, which they’re clearly not going to do now. The season isn’t a quarter over, and while four of his last five outings have been poor, Kimbrel didn’t allow an earned run in his 10 previous appearances, when he saved seven games and won two others.

In his long career, Kimbrel had another similar stretch. In six appearances from July 23rd-August 11th, 2018 with Boston, which started and ended in Baltimore, Kimbrel allowed runs in five of those games — six runs on seven hits.

The Red Sox won those games, and Kimbrel remained the team’s closer as they won the World Series.

This current Orioles team has one of the best records in baseball, a deep starting rotation (3.18 ERA), and a bullpen with a 3.51 ERA.

There are options if the Orioles decided to give Kimbrel a pause in the closer’s role. Webb, who’s saved two games, is one choice. So is Cano, who converted four of five save chances after Bautista was injured in late August.

Albert Suárez, who pitched a spotless 10th inning Wednesday night but allowed two runs in the bottom of the 11th, is another choice.

Tyler Wells, who closed late in the 2021 season, is in Sarasota rehabbing. According to Hyde, Wells, who is on the 15-day injured list with right elbow inflammation, is resting and playing catch, so he’s not an option for the near future.

With less than a quarter of the season gone, trading for a closer now looks problematic. Only three teams — the Chicago White Sox, Colorado and Miami — are out of contention. As we get closer to the July 30th trade deadline, other clubs will decide to punt on this season, and perhaps the Orioles will acquire bullpen help.

That’s a long way away, and we’ll see if the Orioles stick with Kimbrel.

Starting pitcher Grayson Rodriguez thinks he’ll be ready to return from his injured list stint when he’s eligible on May 15th, giving the Orioles six starters. Maybe one of them will go to the bullpen as Suárez did after John Means and Kyle Bradish returned.

Kimbrel will turn 36 later this month, and his 425 saves are tied with Boston’s Kenley Jansen for fifth on the all-time saves list. The Orioles are an excellent team and look to be headed to the postseason for the second straight season.

That’s nearly five months away, but to play well into October, they’ll need an effective closer. As Phillies fans keep reminding their Orioles friends, Kimbrel had issues last postseason.

After pitching well in his first four games in the Wild Card round, Division Series and NL Championship Series, Kimbrel lost Games 3 and 4 of the NLCS against Arizona, enabling the Diamondbacks to go to the World Series.

The Orioles want an opportunity to play in the World Series, but they’ll need big outs from Kimbrel—or someone else.

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