FORT MYERS, Fla. -- An amenable Craig Kimbrel can be quite an amenity.
On the day he was introduced at Fenway Park, Red Sox manager Alex Cora said he sometimes will want to use his closer outside of the ninth inning. More and more, it's accepted around the game that the most crucial situations for a bullpen may come in the eighth inning or even the seventh, not the ninth.
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Kimbrel was asked at Winter Weekend in January how he felt about the idea. His answer was open-minded. At the same time, he made clear he would need communication on the matter and that it was to be talked about. In other words, Kimbrel was saying he wanted to maintain some say in his usage. He didn't cede all control over the situation to the new manager.
The topic has again arisen this spring, and here's guessing they reach an understanding. It's important they do. The situation can have reverberations beyond just the bullpen. We know what Cora wants. Seeing Kimbrel embrace Cora's objective will do wonders for a first-year manager who needs respect in the room. Conversely, if Kimbrel is obstinate, Cora can look undermined.
There may be an adjustment to Kimbrel's routine, if he's pitching in the eighth more often. But there really doesn't need to be additional wear and tear. He can be used in the eighth instead of the ninth -- three outs, just like any other day. He'd do more for his team, just without recording a statistical save.
"We'll sit down with him throughout spring training," Cora said Saturday of Kimbrel. "People think it's a big adjustment. If you start looking at the numbers, you don't lose too many saves if it's the way you want to use him. We're not talking about the lower third of the lineup. We're talking the middle of the lineup, eighth inning, certain situations. What I feel is the game on the line . . . We'll sit down and talk about it and he'll understand where we're coming from. And as long as he's healthy he'll do it."
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That's how it sounds from Kimbrel's end now as well. And out-of-the-gate cooperation from a dominant player, the leader in the bullpen, will go a long way. Managers generally face a near constant stream of fleeting unhappiness from pitchers. Every day, someone gets pulled when they don't think they should be. A tacit vote of confidence from Kimbrel in how Cora wants to use the ‘pen is a valuable tool for not only winning games, but establishing Cora's presence.
Saves have for so long defined closers.
"It's a pretty stat but at the end of the day it's about winning and losing games," Kimbrel said Saturday.
Kimbrel is entering his walk year and turns 30 in May. He's racked up a huge amount of saves, 291, early in his career. Mariano Rivera, who had a relatively late start to his career, had just 129 saves through his age-29 season. Trevor Hoffman had just 135. Kimbrel's strength lies in his tremendous velocity, so he may not be set up to perform as well later into his career as Hoffman and Rivera did, but he also could adjust when, eventually, his velocity drops.
All put together, it's not impossible that Kimbrel could make a run at the all-time saves record. But if he's going to be truly the best reliever possible, he'll embrace the idea that some of his saves will not be credited as such.