NASHVILLE, Tenn. — During the first night of the General Managers Meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Nov. 7, Orioles GM Mike Elias met with David Meter, the agent who represents veteran right-hander Craig Kimbrel. It didn’t take long for Elias to have a realization.
Kimbrel, a free agent again this offseason, would be a perfect fit in Baltimore, with the O’s closer-less for the 2024 season.
“It was pretty clear that we wanted him and he wanted to come join this Orioles team,” Elias said.
Less than a month later, Elias made it happen.
On Wednesday — the final day of the Winter Meetings at Gaylord Opryland Resort — the Orioles signed Kimbrel to a one-year deal that includes a club option for 2025. The right-hander will earn $12 million in ’24, a source told MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand, with the ’25 option worth $13 million (or a $1 million buyout).
Kimbrel is set to become the highest-paid Orioles player since Elias became general manager prior to the 2019 season. The mark previously belonged to Kyle Gibson, who earned $10 million in ’23. Kimbrel’s deal — which guarantees him at least $13 million — was also the largest free-agent contract finalized by any MLB team during this year’s Winter Meetings.
Baltimore had been in the market for a reliever with closing experience because Félix Bautista (the 2023 Mariano Rivera Award winner) is expected to miss the entire ’24 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in October. The O’s wanted a veteran to serve as a fill-in for the All-Star right-hander, and Kimbrel will get an opportunity to do just that, as he’s expected to be the team’s closer next season.
“He is one of the best closers in baseball history at this point,” Elias said. “He’s still got a lot left in the tank, and he had a really solid season last year, and we see a lot of things from a scouting perspective going forward that has us placing a pretty big bet that this guy’s going to have a really good season for us.”
Kimbrel is a 14-year big league veteran who ranks eighth in AL/NL history with 417 career saves. He’s been a Reliever of the Year Award winner in both the American League and National League during his standout career.
Although Kimbrel may not be as dominant as he was from 2010-14 — when he recorded a 1.43 ERA over 294 appearances with the Braves — he has still been solid in recent years. He is coming off a 2023 season in which he posted a 3.26 ERA and collected 23 saves in 71 appearances during his lone year with the Phillies.
“When he’s on, he’s a lockdown pitcher. He’s a guy that is intimidating,” said Baltimore catcher James McCann, who lives near Nashville and stopped by the Winter Meetings on Wednesday. “Similar to Bautista, when he’s grabbing the ball, you know the game’s over.”
Kimbrel was the NL Reliever of the Month in June and was tremendous in September, when he allowed only two earned runs in 12 innings. However, he was not as electric once Philadelphia reached the NL Championship Series, during which he allowed four runs in three innings vs. Arizona and was removed from the closer’s role.
The Phillies signed Kimbrel to a one-year, $10 million deal last offseason. Prior to that, Kimbrel had a 3.75 ERA in 63 appearances for the Dodgers in 2022. He recorded a 2.26 ERA in 63 games split between the Cubs and the White Sox in ’21.
Kimbrel has a 2.40 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP over 757 1/3 career innings split between the Braves, Padres, Red Sox, Cubs, White Sox, Dodgers and Phillies. He won the World Series with Boston in 2018, and he’ll try to have similar success with the O’s, who are coming off a 101-win season in which they won the AL East title.
“We’ve got this really great team, great roster, that’s missing its closer because of injury,” Elias said. “We’ve got a guy that loves pitching leverage innings and closing out games, and he loves winning. And he saw a team that could use him.”
If the Orioles are getting a reliable version of Kimbrel, then their bullpen has the potential to again be a strength in 2024. The unit also features All-Star right-hander Yennier Cano, as well as left-handers Danny Coulombe and Cionel Pérez, to utilize in high-leverage situations.
It’s possible Baltimore may not be done adding to its bullpen mix. While acquiring a starting pitcher is now the clear-cut top priority for the O’s, Elias wouldn’t rule out bringing another impact reliever into the fold this winter.
“We will monitor opportunities in the bullpen, and if that’s a trade or a free-agent contract that starts to look attractive, there’s room for more,” Elias said. “But I would feel like this group now stacks up really well around the league.”