The 2013 season marks the fifth in the brief history of the Gwinnett Braves Baseball Club. To honor that milestone, GwinnettBraves.com will feature some of the great players from the previous four seasons of G-Braves baseball on "5th Season Friday." The feature will run each Friday until the Season Opener on April 4.
Friday, February 8: Craig Kimbrel
If there's anything Atlanta Braves fans can bank on, it's that when Craig Kimbrel enters the game, it's usually three outs from over. The 24-year-old right-hander has converted 89 of 100 save chances while posting a 1.46 ERA in his first two years at the Major League level, making him one of the game's most dominant closers.
Before exploding from the Turner Field bullpen to blaring Guns & Roses on a regular basis, Kimbrel was honing his craft as a closer right here at Coolray Field. His journey from 2008 third round pick to 2011 National League Rookie of the Year included a pivotal 2010 season of development with the Gwinnett Braves.
Kimbrel's advancement through the Braves' system was quick, but always as a closer. He asserted his ability to pitch under pressure at just about every level of the Atlanta organization, culminating with a September promotion to Gwinnett in just his second professional season.
By the time he arrived in Lawrenceville in 2009, Kimbrel had converted 28 of 29 save chances between Rookie Danville, Class-A Rome, Advanced-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Mississippi. He posted a microscopic 0.52 ERA amid three stops in 2008, then followed with a 0.90 ERA in 16 outings with Rome in 2009. His 5.47 ERA in 19 games with Myrtle Beach proved just a minor setback that same season, he'd go on to a 0.77 ERA and six saves in as many chances upon promotion to Mississippi.
With Gwinnett poised for a playoff run as the International League Wild Card, Kimbrel was added to the club to bolster a bullpen that included IL saves leader Jairo Asencio (then named Luis Valdez). The 21-year-old hurler threw scoreless baseball over two regular-season outings, neither save situations. In a four-game playoff series against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, however, he came back to earth with a 10.12 ERA in two relief outings.
Despite the rocky ending, 2009 proved to be a decorated sophomore season for Kimbrel. At year's end, he was named the recipient of the Phil Niekro Award for the organization's top pitcher. Baseball America also tabbed him as a "Rising Star" in the Arizona Fall League and Atlanta's fifth-best prospect.
In 2010, he was included on Gwinnett's Opening Day roster for the first time. With Asencio placed on the restricted list all season, Kimbrel took over the closer's role and didn't disappoint. His first opportunity came in his very first outing of the year on April 8 vs. Charlotte, and he worked past a hit batter and a walk for his first Triple-A save in an 8-6 victory.
Kimbrel pitched scoreless baseball and allowed only three hits while striking out 14 over his first 7.1 innings with the G-Braves. That span included back-to-back saves on April 19 and 20 at Norfolk, outings in which he fanned five of the seven batters he faced. By the start of May, he had converted his first six save chances while boasting a 1.20 ERA.
The early season success was enough to prove his readiness to Atlanta when bullpen help was needed in early May. Kimbrel was called up to the Major League roster for the first time on May 5 and made his big-league debut on May 7 at Philadelphia. He turned in a scoreless inning, striking out two of the four Phillies he faced in the eighth inning of a 7-0 loss. He went back out on the mound for the Braves the next night, navigating around two walks for his first career hold in a 4-1 win. Kimbrel would be used just twice more in his initial Atlanta stint, but secured his first Major League victory on May 20 against Cincinnati. As Kimbrel was optioned back to Gwinnett, he had left behind a 1-0 record and 2.70 ERA in four relief outings with the big club. He wouldn't have to wait long to return.
Whether he was pitching at Turner Field or Coolray Field, Kimbrel continued to impress in the late innings. He won for the first time as a G-Brave in his first outing back with the club on May 23 at Indianapolis, striking out four over 2.0 innings to set up a last at-bat 6-3 win. Saves on May 31 and June 2 vs. Indianapolis raised his Triple-A season total to eight. Atlanta came calling again on June 5, and he'd yield just an unearned run over 5.0 innings spanning four Major League outings from June 5 to June 20.
Again optioned to Gwinnett on June 22, Kimbrel remained focused. He reeled off nine-straight appearances without allowing an earned run from June 23 through July 11, including four-straight outings with saves from June 28 to July 6 to raise his season total to 12. Back-to-back scoreless outings against Charlotte on July 9 and July 11 decreased his ERA to 0.82. There truly was no slowing him down.
Even Kimbrel's first blown save of the season resulted in a positive outcome, as he improved to 2-0 with Gwinnett on July 15 at Buffalo. In that game, his string of 12-straight saves ended as the result of four walks in the ninth, but the G-Braves scored in the top of the 10th and prevailed, 8-7.
From July 28 through September 6, Kimbrel converted 11 of 13 save chances and gave up just two earned runs over 17.2 innings to send his ERA from 1.89 to 1.62. He'd finish his first Triple-A campaign with a 3-2 record, 23 saves in 26 opportunities, a stingy .148 opponent batting average and over 13 strikeouts per 9.0 innings, yet would not garner an International League postseason All-Star award. Kimbrel did, however, receive a recall from Atlanta on September 7.
He has not seen the Minors since. Kimbrel finished out 2010 with a 4-0 record and 0.44 ERA in 21 total outings with Atlanta, paving the way for his inclusion on the Opening Day roster the next spring. As the Braves' new closer in 2011, he set the National League rookie saves record with 46, earning a unanimous vote for the NL Rookie of the Year. In 2012, the fireballer put on a repeat performance, converting 42 of 45 save chances while going 3-1 with a 1.01 ERA. Over his first 163 Major League outings, Kimbrel is 11-4 with a 1.46 ERA, a .151 opponent average and 89 saves.
While Kimbrel's emergence from the Turner Field bullpen in the ninth is now one of the most exciting sights for Atlanta Braves fans, G-Braves' faithful will not soon forget his days of doing the same just up the road at Coolray Field. His 23 saves rank second in Gwinnett history, trailing only Asencio's 53 career saves. Already fourth in saves in Atlanta history, Kimbrel is just 65 saves away from equaling the Braves record held by the great John Smoltz.
You can get your very own Craig Kimbrel Gwinnett Braves Bobblehead on Saturday, August 10 when the G-Braves take on Lehigh Valley at Coolray Field. Want to secure your tickets to all five G-Braves Alumni Bobblehead dates? Purchase the Bobblehead 5-Pack starting at just $50 today!