Kimbrel comfortable with his role, sees Phillies embracing high expectations


CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Craig Kimbrel saved 46 games en route to the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2011 and he hasn't opened a season as anything other than a closer since.

Until 2023, most likely.

Kimbrel is one of many capable high-leverage, hard-throwing relievers in the Phillies' bullpen. They have Seranthony Dominguez, Jose Alvarado and Kimbrel. There's lefty Gregory Soto, who was acquired from the Tigers over the offseason and is the only player yet to arrive to camp because of visa issues leaving the Dominican Republic. There's also lefty Matt Strahm, signed to a $15 million contract, and righties Connor Brogdon and Andrew Bellatti coming off of solid years.

Dominguez' fastball averaged 98 mph last season. Alvarado's sinker averaged 99, as did Soto's heater. Bellatti and Brogdon were at 95 mph. Kimbrel's four-seamer averaged 96.

"I think I might need to step it up a little bit if I want to keep up with their velocity, that's for sure," Kimbrel joked at his locker at BayCare Ballpark. "It's been a long time (since I had to say that)."

Kimbrel may be headed to the Hall of Fame someday. The numbers are absurd. His career ERA is 2.31 and his WHIP is 0.99. He's saved 394 games, which ranks seventh all-time and first among active players. He has five seasons with 40-plus saves and seven with at least 35.

It is unlikely he reaches such a high total this season. Manager Rob Thomson likes to mix and match based on situations, who is due up and how certain pitchers' repertoires play against specific hitters. That is the path the Phillies plan to take unless someone blows away the competition in camp or early in the season.

Could that be a concern with Kimbrel? In 2021, he had a dominant first half with the Cubs, saving 23 games with a 0.49 ERA. He was traded to the White Sox, where he set up for Liam Hendriks and couldn't recapture his success from the North Side.

The narrative became: Kimbrel must close to be successful. Fair or unfair?

"I think it's an easy topic to talk about, especially as long as I've done it," Kimbrel said. "It's easy to say, 'Oh he's struggling because it's not the ninth inning.' That's not the case. I'm struggling because I'm giving up runs, not putting up zeroes. I think maybe at the beginning, some of it could have contributed to that, but I think at this point, I'm willing to do what I need to do. 

"I have an understanding of what this team needs to be successful. It may not be the ninth inning every night. Do I think I'm gonna have the ninth inning a good amount of times? I hope so. I think a lot of guys in this bullpen will have those opportunities a lot. I think it's gonna be spread out and whatever is the best scenario to win the game."

Kimbrel was still with the White Sox at this time last year and was traded to the Dodgers on April 1, a week before opening day. The Dodgers had one of baseball's best rosters but had lost Kenley Jansen to the Braves via free agency and needed late-inning bullpen help. They swapped outfielder A.J. Pollock for Kimbrel, who became the closer. 

Kimbrel converted his first 10 save opportunities with the Dodgers but had a few rough patches. From May 27 through July 3, he allowed 13 runs (10 earned) in 14⅓ innings, blowing three saves and taking four losses. He was no longer the Dodgers' closer by the end of the season after allowing runs in three of four games in late September.

"Kinda like a heartbeat, up and down, up and down," he said. "I had some stretches I felt pretty comfortable about and I had some stretches where at times I couldn't even look at myself because I was disappointed in my performance, disappointed in how some of the games turned out. 

"All I try to do is put myself in position to succeed. I think at times last year, I struggled to put myself there and consistently stay there. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about what makes me successful and what makes me not successful. Even in tough times, I look for positives and some of those positives were just understanding myself better and understanding where I need to be."

Now he finds himself with another team expected to play meaningful games in October. Kimbrel (one year, $10 million) was one of several veterans the Phillies added this offseason, along with Trea Turner, Taijuan Walker, Soto and Strahm. The Phils will enter 2023 without the face of their franchise as Bryce Harper recovers from Tommy John surgery, but this is one of the deepest rosters in baseball 1 through 26.

"There's a lot of excitement, a lot of guys," Kimbrel said. "Getting as far as they did last year and coming up short, that just puts an extra incentive in a lot of guys in the offseason, getting to that point and getting to experience what it is to play those meaningful games at the end of the year. What it's like to have the fans behind them and kind of understanding what that does for each and every guy's performance on the field, how it can elevate it and make this game more enjoyable. I can definitely see that around the clubhouse and the excitement to get this thing started.

"We expect every team to come at us with everything they've got every single night because, frankly, I think there's a lot of guys in this room who have had very successful careers so far and already know that success is coming," he said. "So I think there's a lot of positives to expectations as well -- there's no nights off, every game is important."

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