Lakeland, Fla. – When the Braves fly home to Atlanta tonight, Craig Kimbrel will be with them. And even though he’ll be headed a little further up I-85 to Triple-A Gwinnett after Friday-Saturday exhibitions against the White Sox, it’s only a matter of time.
Only a matter of time — I’d guess early summer — before Kimbrel is pitching for the Braves in games that count. Then only a matter of time — I’d guess 2011 — before he’s their closer.
Current closer Billy Wagner probably wouldn’t disagree with any of that assessment. The 38-year-old lefty with 385 career saves is convinced, after observing Kimbrel for six weeks, the 21-year-old righty is the real thing.
“He’s got a lot more going for him than I did when I was coming up,” Wagner said. “I didn’t have a breaking ball; it was 95-99 percent fastballs. He’s got a really good breaking ball. And he’s got a good head on his shoulders.
“Hell, I’d take him right now.”
(Hey, while I’m thinking about it, another young Brave got to meet a living legend while ago. Bobby Cox introduced Jason Heyward to Tigers great Al Kaline in the visiting manager’s office here at Joker Marchant Stadium. Pretty cool. Brought Heyward into the little office and the two chatted for a few minutes before we went in.)
Where were we?
Oh, yes…. Kimbrel has more than held his own this spring, allowing just three hits in eight scoreless innings, with six walks and 12 strikeouts. He struck out two of three batters faced in a perfect inning yesterday against Houston.
Wagner wasn’t suggesting the Braves are making a mistake sending Kimbrel to Triple-A to begin the season as the G-Braves’ closer.
The veteran was just saying that if they instead decided to put Kimbrel in the major league bullpen without any further experience — the kid has only 13-2/3 innings above Single-A — then he’d be ready to handle it.
“Personally, I think he’s ready,” Wagner said of Kimbrel, who throws almost as hard — 96-98 mph — as Wagner when he was a rookie. “I mean, he’d be there with a veteran bullpen to kind of help him. It’s not like he’s going to go out and pitch the ninth or eighth inning right away anyway. You put him in the sixth and give him innings, the guy can go out there and walk two and strike out three.
“That’s the way I did it when I first came up — just hit and miss, but you have that ability to strike three out. He’s got that ability.”
Rather than try to get Kimbrel work in the middle innings in a bullpen that has Peter Moylan, lefty Eric O’Flaherty, Takashi Saito and Wagner to handle the seventh through ninth innings on a regular basis, the Braves are sending Kimbrel to Gwinnett to close — with the understanding he’ll enter some games in the eighth inning, to have some longer stints to work on command of all pitches.
“If he’s lucky he’ll be able to get some mentoring to kind of grow into it,” Wagner said of the major league closer role, “instead of doing what I had to do.”
Wagner then laughed and paraphrased what he was told as an Astros rookie: “Go get ‘em … oh, and we’re trying to win.”
Wagner had been used exclusively as a starter in the minors, but was thrust into relief as a big-league rookie after a midseason 1996 callup. He had a 2.44 ERA with nine saves in 37 relief appearances for Houston that season, with 67 strikeout in 51-2/3 innings, and more walks allowed (30) than hits (28).
But he was also 24 years old, with four seasons in the minors. He had 25 starts and 150 innings in Triple-A, plus 12 starts in Double-A.
But did we mention, he’s really good? Oh, yes. No doubt.
Kimbrel won the Phil Niekro Award — speaking of Knucksie, he’s 71 today — as the Braves’ top minor league pitcher in 2009, when he had 18 saves and a 2.85 ERA in 49 appearances, with a whopping 103 strikeouts and 45 walks in 60 innings. He allowed 50 percent more walks than hits (30) last season.
“I like him,” said Wagner, who’s the same size – about 5-9 or 5-10 – as Kimbrel. “He just needs the experience, the reps, going out and pitching and pitching in situations. Stuff-wise, it’s better than most of the guys in our bullpen, and probably most of the guys in the big leagues.”
Yes, he said better than most of the guys in the major.
“It’s like most minor leaguers, they’re ready stuff-wise,” Wagner said. “It’s just the fact that they don’t have that experience. Plus, managers like people who’ve been there and done that. He’ll get his shot. He spent a lot of time around me and [Scott] Proctor, guys like that, just kind of getting a feel for it.
“We told him, like we tell ourselves: Simplify everything, don’t over-think anything, just let your ability take over. With his velocity and his makeup, he doesn’t need to try to hit spots. A lot of times when you’re young, you try to do more than you’re capable of, and that probably gets him in as much trouble as it’s gotten all of us coming up.”
Only a matter of time, folks. And I’d say sooner than later.
♣ Braves win the wild card: So says the computer at Baseball Think Factory, which ESPN’s magazine had simulate the season 100 times to predict what would happen.
The results had the Phillies winning the NL East 63.5 times, the Braves 25.5, and the Mets 10 times (obviously they did it before the latest Mets injury spree). Problem I had with it was that the Nationals won the division once and the Marlins none.
Really? The Marlins none?
Anyway, the computer had the Cardinals winning the Central and Dodgers winning the West, then the Phillies beating the Cards in one series and the Dodgers taking down the Braves in the other.
It had the Phillies over the Dodgers in the NLCS, the Red Sox over the Yankees in the ALCS, and the Sox over the Phils in the World Series.
If you missed it last week, Buster Olney also picked the Braves to win the wild card, but had the Rockies as his surprise pick to win the World Series.
Sports Illustrated also picks the Braves to finish behind the Phillies in the East and win the wild card.
Well, I hate to agree with a computer or Buster — kidding, Buster — but in regards to the NL East, I’m in agreement. I think the Braves will push the Phillies to the wire, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Atlanta win the division because of their superior pitching.
But if I was forced to pick today: 1. Phillies, 2. Braves, 3. Marlins, 4. Nationals, 5. Mets. Yes, I’m going to have to go with the Mets to finish last. I just think they’re so dysfunctional right now, and the Nats’ lineup is not bad.
I’ll do the rest of my picks later this week or weekend, including Cy Young, MVP, rookie and playoff teams in both leagues.
♣ More rankings: Boston Globe baseball scribe Nick Cafardo did his managerial rankings last week. Cox critics, you’ll probably want to skip this. If anyone has trouble clicking that link, here it is long-form: http://blogs.ajc.com/atlanta-braves-blog/2010/04/01/wren-confident-about-pitching-depth-glaus-power/
Bravos (starters will probably get two at-bats)
♣ Still more lists, rankings: But this one’s a non-baseball list. So you baseball-only folks, skip to the comments. This isn’t for you.
Music that got me through spring (rental car speakers … sorry)
1. Drive-By Truckers The Big To-Do
2. Titus Andronicus The Monitor
3. Alberta Cross Broken Side of Time
4. The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights
5. Broken Bells self-titled debut
6. James McMurtry Live in Europe
7. Dale Watson Truckin’ Sessions, Vol. II
8. Raekwon Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. II
Game’s about to start (they’re starting a couple minutes early actually — and expect a lot of first-pitch swings on get-out-of-Florida day). So we’ll post this.
“YEAR OF THE CAT” by Al Stewart & Peter Wood
On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolour in the rain
Don’t bother asking for explanations
She’ll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat
She doesn’t give you time for questions
As she locks up your arm in hers
And you follow ’till your sense of which direction
By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls
There’s a hidden door she leads you to
These days, she says, I feel my life
Just like a river running through
The year of the cat
Well, she looks at you so cooly
And her eyes shine like the moon in the sea
She comes in incense and patchouli
So you take her, to find what’s waiting inside
The year of the cat
Well, morning comes and you’re still with her
And the bus and the tourists are gone
And you’ve thrown away the choice and lost your ticket
So you have to stay on
But the drum-beat strains of the night remain
In the rhythm of the new-born day
You know sometime you’re bound to leave her
But for now you’re going to stay
In the year of the cat