Four choices for the Orioles as Craig Kimbrel struggles as closer: Internal

Nearly seven weeks into the 2024 season, the Baltimore Orioles again look like the best team in the American League. They led the circuit with 101 wins a year ago and, entering play Sunday, the O’s have the best record (26-12) and best run differential (plus-56) in the AL. Baltimore has won 18 of their last 24 games.

“We battle. This team never gives up,” Craig Kimbrel said following Saturday’s 11th inning 5-4 walk-off win over the Arizona Diamondbacks (via MLB.com). “We were talking about it a couple weeks ago down in the bullpen. Our job’s keeping them close, because in a blink of an eye, these guys can score four runs. If we’re keeping the games close and keeping our offense in it, we’re going to have a chance to win a lot of games.”

The Orioles are scoring 5.16 runs per game, most in the AL and third most in baseball, and their rotation ranks sixth in ERA (3.28) among all teams. The bullpen has not been bad, necessarily — Baltimore’s bullpen ranks seventh in ERA (3.26) and sixth in win probability added (2.00) — though the ninth inning has been an adventure at times. Kimbrel’s May has been something to behold:

May 3 at Reds

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May 4 at Reds

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May 8 at Nationals

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May 10 vs. D-Backs

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May 11 vs. D-Backs

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Three great performances sandwiched around two clunkers. Two clunkers in which Kimbrel had to be pulled in the ninth inning and someone else had to come in to finish off the save. On May 10, Kimbrel pitched the seventh inning with the O’s up one. On May 11, he pitched the 11th inning, after the team’s other high leverage relievers had already been used.

“Pitching in a 3-2 game in the seventh is still a lot of pressure and a high leverage situation,” manager Brandon Hyde said after using Kimbrel in the seventh inning on May 11 (via MASN). “I just want to get him going, honestly. I just want him to get confident. I know he’s had kind of a rough week and just wanted to kind of change his look a little bit. This guy’s done a lot of really cool things for a long time and just trying to get him some confidence.”

The O’s will be without all-world closer Félix Bautista this season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. They signed Kimbrel to essentially serve as a one-year stopgap closer — Kimbrel’s $13 million deal is the only major-league free-agent contract the Orioles gave out this winter — but, to date, things have been shaky in the ninth inning. It hasn’t sunk their season, but it is a concern.

What can the Orioles do about Kimbrel and their closer situation? There are four ways they could address things.

1. Ride it out with Kimbrel

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Recent shakiness aside, Kimbrel has not allowed an earned run in 13 of his 18 appearances, and his first 11 appearances were nearly spotless: 0.82 ERA with 17 strikeouts in 11 innings. Opponents hit .139/.200/.139 against him. Kimbrel pitched very well, hit a rough patch in late April and early May, and now his last two appearances have been good.

The Orioles are so good in all other facets of the game that sticking with Kimbrel in the ninth inning is justifiable. He hit a rough patch like every reliever does every year (even the great ones), and Kimbrel’s been around long enough that he knows how to work through these rough patches. Sometimes the best solution is to remain patient and trust your players.

Remember, the Philadelphia Phillies went to the NLCS with Kimbrel as their closer last year (just don’t ask about the World Series). He closed games for a high level contender just last year. You don’t have to look back four or five years for the last time Kimbrel was a late-inning option for a team with championship aspirations. It’s only May. The O’s could simply stick with Kimbrel.

2. Go with someone else

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This is exactly what happened on May 10. Hyde de-emphasized Kimbrel and used him in the seventh inning with a one-run lead. Righty Jacob Webb and lefty Cionel Pérez tag-teamed the eighth inning, then 2023 All-Star Yennier Cano closed things out in the ninth. Cano also bailed out Kimbrel and closed out that messy May 4 game in Cincinnati.

The solution to Baltimore’s closer trouble is right there: Cano. He’s been outstanding since the start of last season and he is an elite ground-ball pitcher, meaning he’s not going to come into the ninth inning and serve up a game-tying homer. To score against Cano, you need three singles to score one run. That’s not easy. That’s why he’s so effective.

Hyde could also go with Webb, who’s leveled up since joining the O’s via waiver claim last August. Or Danny Coulombe, another excellent bullpen find by GM Mike Elias. Keegan Akin is another option now that he’s rebounded from a rough 2023. Point is, the O’s have closer candidates in-house. Cano’s the best, but there are others. Pick one and go with him.

3. Closer by committee

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The problem with using Cano as the closer is the ninth inning isn’t always the most important inning, and he’s shown he’s capable of getting 4-6 outs, if necessary. That’s really valuable. On April 29, Cano got the final out of the seventh inning and all three outs in the eighth inning with the Orioles up two. The batters he faced: Aaron Judge, Anthony Rizzo, Giancarlo Stanton, Austin Wells.

Hyde identified that “lane” as the game’s most pivotal moment — Judge represented the tying run when Cano entered, and if the Yankees were going to come back, it was probably going to happen right there — so he used Cano to snuff out a potential rally. Coulombe then came in to get the save against the bottom of the lineup in the ninth inning with Kimbrel unavailable.

Not too long ago, closer by committee meant you didn’t have a closer. It was a bad thing. Now it’s almost in style. Teams will multiple high-end relievers will mix and match in the late innings and use relievers when they’re most needed, not when their specific inning rolls around. Already this season 17 teams have multiple pitchers with multiple saves. More than half the league!

Closer by committee is essentially what the O’s are going right now as Kimbrel is being de-emphasized. Hyde is using Cano as his Moment of Truth™ reliever and then filling in the gaps with Coulombe, Pérez, Webb, and Michael Baumann. This approach leaves the manager open to second guessing. It’s also very, very effective when done properly.

4. Make a trade

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Despite their youth, this is something of an all-in season for the Orioles because Corbin Burnes will be a free agent this offseason. Perhaps new owner David Rubenstein will step up and give the 2021 NL Cy Young winner a big contract, but, until it happens, we kind of have to assume it’s one year and one year only with Burnes. The O’s want to make the most of it.

In that case, it would make sense to dip into that very deep well of prospects — the O’s have more high-end prospects than roster spots — and trade for an impact reliever to stabilize the ninth inning. This is not really Elias’ M.O. He tends to build his bullpen around unheralded pickups, though the Kimbrel signing shows a willingness to deviate from the plan.

The obvious trade target: Oakland Athletics flamethrower Mason Miller. Miller’s been out-of-this world good this season and teams are already asking about him. It would hurt to get him prospect-wise, but gosh, Miller is a dominator and would make any bullpen better. And think about it, the O’s would get Miller to help in 2024, and then have him, Cano, and Bautista in 2025. Sheesh.

Here, listed alphabetically, are a few other possible reliever trade targets should the O’s decide to go outside the organization for bullpen help.

Ryan Helsley, St. Louis Cardinals: At 15-24, the Cardinals are in last place, just not for the reasons we expected. The front office may sell at the deadline and Helsley, who is under team control in 2025, would be one of their top trade chips. Helsley has struck out 19 batters and walked only one intentionally this year.

Michael Kopech, Chicago White Sox: Did you know the ChiSox are 9-6 in their last 15 games? They’re still very bad though, and there is every reason to expect them to sell at the deadline. Kopech has always had premium stuff and I reckon the O’s would be able to get him to the next level a la Cano, Webb, et al. As an added bonus, they’d have him next year too.

Justin Lawrence, Colorado Rockies: Armed with an upper-90s sinker and a big-breaking sweeper, Lawrence is exactly the kind of power bullpen arm a smart team could turn into a late-inning force. It hasn’t happened in Colorado, in part because of Coors Field and in part because of *gestures at Rockies*but it might elsewhere.

Ryan Pressly, Houston Astros: Elias was the assistant GM in Houston when the Astros traded for Pressly in 2018, so there’s a history here. The Astros are 14-25 and, if they don’t climb back into the race, trading Pressly and avoiding his $14 million vesting option for 2025 would be sensible. The option vests with another 34 appearances.

Jordan Romano, Blue Jays: An elbow issue delayed the start of Romano’s season and he’s been shaky since returning, but the track record is strong and he’s under team control next season as well. The Blue Jays are in the AL East cellar and their minus-43 run differential is second worst in the AL. Romano could be available come July.

Tanner Scott, Miami Marlins: Luis Arraez has already been dealt and Scott, a free agent-to-be, is certain to go at some point as well. He began his career with the Orioles, so there is familiarity here, plus lefties who throw 100 mph are always in demand. The only question is whether the O’s trust his control (14 walks in 14 innings in 2024).

In strikeout artists Anthony Bender and Andrew Nardi, the Marlins have other relievers who may be more up Elias’ alley as under-the-radar types. The D-backs could move Paul Sewald if they don’t get their season back on the rails. He’ll be a free agent in a few months. There will be good relievers on the trade market in July. Always are. It’s just a matter of finding the right one(s).

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