Next Generation Closer: Can Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel Join The Best Of The Best?

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Next Generation Closer: Can Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel Join The Best Of The Best?
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Who's Craig Kimbrel?

He's the next generation of major league closers.

Kimbrel is currently slated to out-duel fellow relief pitchers come spring training and capture the closer role for the Atlanta Braves.  The Braves have not had a shutdown arm since John Smoltz and Kimbrel could be this decade's dominant closer.

The soon to be 23-year-old had been one of the most dominating closers in the minors before he was brought up with Atlanta in May of last year.  Kimbrel only appeared in eight games between his call up and June before being demoted back to AAA. 

The young kid's see-saw transition to the MLB continued in August when he was brought up once again and compiled 11.2 innings until season's end.

Even with the push and pull within the Braves organization, Kimbrel was able to compile 23 saves in AAA last year, striking out 83 batters in 55 innings and sporting a cool 1.64 ERA.  The rookie does tend to walk batters at times, but has enough control to get out of trouble when runners are on base.

While these minor league stats prove to be very impressive, his carried-over success into the majors last year is even more eye-opening.  In 20.2 innings with the Braves last year, amidst a late season playoff race, Kimbrel posted a 4-0 record with a 0.44 ERA.  He struck out nearly two batters an inning with a total of 40 and only gave up nine hits with no home runs.

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Kimbrel's ability to keep the ball away from any hitter's bat was clearly evident from his stat line from 2010.  In his 149.1 innings pitched during his three-year minor league career, Kimbrel only surrendered five home runs on 74 hits.  That kind of production is rarely found among strikeout closers nowadays.

The outlook for Kimbrel and the Braves in 2011 is fairly good.  With the addition of Dan Uggla, a healthy Chipper Jones and Jair Jurrjens, an imminent explosive season from Tommy Hanson, and the opportunity for rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman to make an impact, the Braves have all the pieces to be serious contenders come October.

Kimbrel is currently being drafted and ranked outside of the top 15 closers in fantasy leagues this year.  Jonathan Papelbon, Jonathan Broxton and Francisco Rodriguez, who are untrusted veteran arms on the decline, are all being taken ahead of Kimbrel. 

Given a full opportunity to close for the Braves for all of 2011, Kimbrel could surpass 40 saves and 100 strikeouts.  We could be witnessing the new era of closers in the MLB.  Neftali Feliz, Brian Wilson, Carlos Marmol and Craig Kimbrel.

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