Since arriving in the major leagues in late 2010, 5’11” right-hander Craig Kimbrel has been the best closer in baseball, unequivocally.
Over the last seasons, the 25-year-old has appeared in 163 games for the Braves and registered a 1.46 ERA with 89 saves. Kimbrel led all National League closers with 46 saves in 2011 and 42 in 2012, and was selected to the All-Star team in each year.
Using a fastball that sits in the high-90s and occasionally reaches triple-digits, as well as one of the filthiest sliders in the game, Kimbrel has been a one-man wrecking crew in the ninth inning. Exactly how effective has he been? Well, in 160.1 innings in the major leagues, the right-hander has amassed 283 strikeouts (15.9 K/9) compared to only 62 walks (3.5 BB/9). Last season, he fanned more than half the batters he faced. Equally important is the fact that Kimbrel has allowed only 84 hits (six of them home runs) over that span and demonstrated a knack for stranding baserunners.
But is there a future Craig Kimbrel lurking in the minor leagues? Possibly. There are definitely some big-time, power arms with closer potential, though it will require more than just a plus fastball to rival Kimbrel’s overwhelming success.
Here’s a look at five pitchers who could be the next Craig Kimbrel.
*All stats courtesy of BaseballReference.com
*Some players' notes are derived from their original scouting report, which appeared as part of their organization's top-10 prospects ranking.
A 2011 draft pick, Capps appeared in only 43 minor league games before a promotion from Double-A to the Mariners’ bullpen in early August.
A 6'5" right-hander, Capps’ boasts a plus-plus fastball that averaged the second-highest velocity (99.02 mph) among all big-league relievers last season, and routinely hits triple-digits despite jerky, unorthodox arm action. His slider gives him a second plus offering that registers in the mid-to-upper-80s with a late, wipeout break. His deceptive delivery allows him to hide the ball well, which, in turn, makes it seemingly jump out of his hand on opposing hitters.
A fourth-round pick in 2012 out of San Jose State, Jones boasts an electric arm with two above-average-to-plus pitches in a plus-plus fastball that can reach triple-digits, and a sharp slider thrown with velocity. The 6’1”, 185-pound right-hander made a strong debut after signing last season, recording four saves and a 3.21 ERA with 25/7 K/BB in 14 innings at Low-A Beloit. If Jones can continue to throw strikes, it may not take him long to reach the major leagues.
Trevor Rosenthal put himself on the national radar last season with lights-out performance in the postseason, as he allowed two hits and two walks while recording 15 strikeouts in 8.2 innings. Even though I still believe the right-hander's highest ceiling is as a starter, there's a strong chance that he'll end up in the bullpen once again next season.
As a starter, the right-hander’s fastball sits in the mid-to-upper-90s with lots of sink and arm-side movement. As a reliever, Rosenthal sits in the high-90s and routinely hits triple-digits. His breaking ball is a second plus pitch with late, wipeout break out of the zone, and is very difficult to recognize relative to the heater.
Bettis missed the entire 2012 season with injury to throwing shoulder. However, the right-hander still profiles as a high-level reliever and potential dominant closer. He misses plenty of bats with two-plus pitches, and is a candidate to be fast-tracked to major leagues once he’s fully healthy.
Fastball is a plus pitch that registers in the mid-90s, though he can juice it up for a few more ticks. Bettis uses both a two- and four-seam for different looks, but needs to consistently throw it on downward plane and avoid leaving it up in the zone. The right-hander's slider is an easy plus offering, as he throws it with velocity and a fast arm. The pitch is swing-and-miss offering with tilt and depth, and gives him an ideal 1-2 combination out of the bullpen.
5’9” right-hander’s diminutive frame doesn’t involve much future projection, but his explosive arsenal is undeniable. He may have reached the major leagues in his professional debut last season, but was handed a 50-game suspension for ingesting a performance-enhancing substance.
The 21-year-old features tons of raw arm strength and unleashes fastballs in the mid-to-upper-90s, though there's some concern about the plane of his fastball given his height and lack of downward plane. Stroman's breaking ball is a second plus pitch with jelly-legging break, and he throws it with the same intense arm speed as fastball.