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Red Sox report: The Craig Kimbrel conundrum

Rob Bradford
February 17, 2018 - 7:14 pm

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Here is the line Craig Kimbrel uttered Saturday morning that we should put up on the 2018 bulletin board ... 

"It's a pretty stat but at the end of the day it's about winning and losing games."

The stat the closer was talking about, of course, was "saves." In 2017, Kimbrel had 35 of them, the third-most in the American Leagues. It was a number that helped define how good the reliever was, even though there were so many other numbers which would support the cause.

But, like it or not, saves are viewed as something more than just an ornamental statistic. Just ask Wade Davis, who most likely used his total to help garner the three-year, $52 million deal he reeled in with the Rockies this offseason. Kimbrel knows that. As does Red Sox manager Alex Cora.

That reality, however, isn't going to change what could be a significant shift when it comes to prioritizing saves this coming season. According to Cora, save situations aren't always going to be the landing spot for his best relief pitcher this time around.

"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," the manager said. "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 game on the line. Game on the line for you might be different for me, the way you think. 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.

Cora added, "One thing, I don’t know if the seventh is the answer, the eighth or ninth. I’m a big believer that one hitter is not going to dictate what we’re going to do. For example, as you know, we’ll go on a hitter by hitter basis. I think I manage the game a little different. The way I see the game up one, up two, up three might be different for me than other managers. So we’ll see how it goes but I have a good idea of where and how and just put them… we talk about them coming in but usually, it’s a high leverage situation of course because you’ve got bases loaded and no outs but sometimes a high leverage situation for me is nobody on nobody out.

"In the end, we're all going to be comfortable with what we're going to do. I know pitchers have different routines. There are guys that go out before the game. Some other group goes out in the third, going to the bullpen. Others in the fifth inning. We'll talk about that stuff. We'll adjust, he'll adjust, and in the end, we'll be on the same page and it's going to be a good situation for everybody."

It's a strategy that John Farrell introduced at times in 2017, with Kimbrel pitching in the eighth inning six times. The difference this time is two-fold. For one, Kimbrel is slated to become a free agent at the end of the season and, as mentioned, saves are valued by any closer in such a situation.

"I think, if he looks at the market, what happened this year with relievers, he's in a good place," said Cora, clearly referring to Davis.

"Well, I'm not a free agent this year. I'm a free agent next year," Kimbrel said. "So that's not anything that I can concern myself with or our family can concern ourselves with. It's just worrying about this year. If we're able to take care of things this year and things go in the right direction, we'll definitely have a lot of time to think about that next year.

"I'd like to [stay in Boston]. I've enjoyed my time here in Boston. Been a part of two winning teams and hopefully three after this year. You never know where life is going to take you. I learned that a lot this offseason in dealing with my daughter. So I'm just going to take each day for what it is. If we're talking about if I'm coming back here next year or if I'm going somewhere else, I mean, next year is really the time to talk about that. Like I said, right now I''m a Boston Red Sox and I'm happy to be a Boston Red Sox and I'm looking forward to this year."

The other part of the equation that might be different is we're talking about not using Kimbrel for the ninth inning after appearing in the eighth. That wasn't really part of the plan when bringing in the reliever prior to the ninth last season. And if Cora is to implement such a strategy, an acceptable closing strategy is going to have to be uncovered, needing someone from the group of Tyler Thornburg, Carson Smith, Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes or Heath Hembree to step up.

"Potentially I think I'll be used in positions I need to be used in," Kimbrel said. "I think I'll be closing out a lot of games and getting us out of some tough spots when needed to."

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