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Orioles sign closer Craig Kimbrel to one-year, $13 million deal

Felix Bautista’s injury left Baltimore in the market for a back-end reliever.

Craig Kimbrel of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches in the eighth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks during Game Six of the Championship Series at Citizens Bank Park on October 23, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Update: The deal is done, a one-year pact worth $13 million with a club option for 2025.

Slowly but surely, the Hot Stove is beginning to warm up a bit. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox gave us a significant trade late Tuesday night, and Wednesday morning word broke that their division rivals, the Baltimore Orioles, were nearing an agreement with former Phillies closer Craig Kimbrel. Nothing official yet, but it sounds like more a matter of “when” than “if”:

With All-Star closer Felix Bautista set to miss the entire 2024 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, the Orioles entered this winter hoping to add at least one high-leverage arm to a bullpen that was one of the best in baseball last year. Kimbrel certainly qualifies: The righty made his ninth All-Star team in 2023, with a 3.26 ERA, 23 saves and 94 strikeouts in 69 innings. Again, the team has yet to make anything official, but the expectation appears to be that the 35-year-old will slot into Bautista’s role in the ninth inning, with breakout star Yennier Cano remaining the setup man.

Whether Kimbrel was actually the right choice to fill Baltimore’s Bautista-sized hole, however, is a thornier question. Yes, those regular-season numbers look awfully strong. But Kimbrel melted down in the Phillies’ NLCS loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, with a loss in Game 3 and a blown save in Game 4 that forced manager Rob Thomson to drop him down in the pecking order for the rest of the series. He’s also been wildly unpredictable over the last few years: awful with the Cubs in 2019-2020 (6.00 ERA), great first half of 2021 (0.49), awful second half of 2021 (5.09), middling with the Dodgers in 2022 (3.75). Good luck trying to project which Kimbrel you’ll get as he enters his age-36 season, with declining fastball velocity and persistent command questions.

Granted, this wasn’t the best market in which to need relief help, with precious few proven options behind Josh Hader — who reportedly has his sights set on landing a record contract. If you’re looking to acquire a pitcher with real ninth-inning experience while not breaking the bank, your options were essentially Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman, and it’s understandable that Baltimore GM Mike Elias opted for the former. Still, a lights-out bullpen was a very big part of the O’s winning formula last season — they ranked fifth in reliever ERA — and Kimbrel is obviously a significant downgrade from Bautista. Elias had been linked to just about every other available reliever in recent weeks, from Hader to Jordan Hicks to Hector Neris, and he could add another arm to take some pressure off of internal options like Mike Baumann and Cionel Perez.