Leaders of the youth movement

Newson January 12th, 2011No Comments

Craig Kimbrel participated in the union’s seminars over the past week, a means for educating young players like the Braves’ reliever. They talked about dealing with the media, the good and bad of social media, investing money, that sort of thing. And along the way, Kimbrel shared in a conversation about all the scions of the National League East: Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison of the Marlins, the Braves’ Jason Heyward and Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, the Nationals’ Drew Storen, the Mets’ Ike Davis.

As baseball has gotten younger, more and more often contending teams are relying on burgeoning players in important roles — like Neftali Feliz, the closer for the Texas Rangers.

This again will be the case in 2011. Ten young players who will need to produce for their respective teams this year:

1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
The Phillies have the best on-paper rotation in the majors, while Atlanta’s advantage might be in its late-inning relief. Venters may have the best pure stuff of any left-handed bullpen guy in the sport, and last year he struck out 93 in 83 innings, while allowing just one home run. With Billy Wagner retiring, Venters may get some save chances in 2011, but Kimbrel figures to get more.

Don’t look for the Braves to anoint either guy as the closer any time soon — Kimbrel said he has yet to speak to Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta’s new manager, and it’s pointless to put that kind of pressure on the pitchers in the middle of the winter. But Kimbrel’s performance at the end of last year demonstrated that he is ready to finish games in the majors: In 20 2/3 innings in the regular season, he struck out 40 and allowed just nine hits.

Kimbrel, 22, also walked 16, but 10 of those came in his first eight appearances, in the first half of the season. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Kimbrel had made progress; he allowed one hit and one walk in 4 1/3 innings against San Francisco, with seven strikeouts.

“I learned to control the game, not let the game control you,” Kimbrel said over the phone Monday. “I learned from Wagner and being around the game and watching guys that you can make the game go too fast. And you can slow it down.”

Kimbrel had heard through his years of pitching as an amateur the mantra of focusing on each pitch, rather than on an at-bat or an inning. But in his time in the majors last year, he learned to apply that — by stepping off the mound, by resetting emotionally, by not looking ahead.

He also learned from Wagner, Scott Proctor and others the importance of being mentally ready no matter the situation, because inevitably, there will be games when the adrenaline won’t be inherent. A four-run lead for a closer who needs some work. The inning that a reliever sometimes has to eat in a blowout. The recovery from a blown save situation.

“You have to have the same mindset every time,” said Kimbrel, who has started throwing but won’t begin working off a mound until later this month. He is not going to spring training, he says, focusing on the closer’s role; rather, he’s going to spring training looking to pitch well enough to make the team.

The Braves would love for that to happen, and for Kimbrel to eventually step into Wagner’s old job. Given the challenges they face in the NL East, they need for that to happen.

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