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Why Craig Kimbrel might have become the Red Sox' most important player

by: Rob Bradford on Mon, 04/10/2017 - 7:33am

Craig Kimbrel needs to be at his best in this version of the Red Sox' bullpen (Jonathan Dyer/USA Today Sports)Mookie Betts. Xander Bogaerts. Hanley Ramirez. They all missed just enough time for us to reflect on who might be the most important Red Sox.

But watching the end of the game Sunday, there could be another candidate.

The Red Sox really, really need a good Craig Kimbrel.

Perhaps the importance of Kimbrel was brought to the surface by the wave of constant reminders what the Red Sox gave up for him. As the closer was struggling to get a save in his team's 7-5 win over Detroit, more than a few took to Twitter to surface the stats of Manuel Margot, who is carrying a .940 OPS with two home runs over his first seven games this season.

Yet there is another very simple way to highlight Kimbrel's candidacy for the Sox' most important player: Who would the Red Sox' turn to as a replacement?

The Red Sox are currently a team possessing a bullpen with just one player who has enough to experience to be designated a role. Matt Barnes may soon morph into the no-doubt eighth inning guy, and somebody like Robby Scott could become a reliable late-inning lefty.

But Kimbrel is the one guy who there can't be any room for interpretation. He gets paid too much, cost too much to acquire, and has too extensive of a resume.

It's the exact reason why John Farrell might have to actually rethink his hesitancy to add one more out to Kimbrel's outings.

Yes, Kimbrel hasn't typically delved into those four-out waters this early in the season. Last year, he didn't go beyond three outs until May 28, which was the earliest foray into such an outing since his 1 1/3 innings on April 21, 2011.

It's a need that, with the unknowns that come with this bullpen (as was evident in Friday's loss), might have be accepted more this time around. Buck Showalter realized it when pitching Zach Britton two innings on Opening Day.

Cam Bedrosian. Alex Colome. Raisel Iglesias. Brandon Kintzler. All  these closers have already received saves in outings of of more than an inning. Their teams made up for their bullpen uncertainty by going with the anchors for more than three outs, even with the calendar being what it is.

This brings us back to the importance of Kimbrel being good.

Even if Farrell decides to extend the closer's out limit, he has to be good enough to make it worthwhile. And so far, if the Red Sox possessed the kind of seventh and eighth inning security of years past, relying on this form of Kimbrel wouldn't necessarily offer instant comfort.

The good thing for the Red Sox when witnessing the righty Sunday afternoon was knowing the stuff is still there. When it came down to crunch-time, Kimbrel could (and did) rely on a 99 mph fastball to sail over Tigers bats. He currently owns a 43 percent swing-and-miss percentage through three outings, which would be the best of his career.

The bad was pitch location. Out of his 25 pitches, 11 were balls. It allowed for three Detroit base runners and an uneasy finish to the Red Sox' win.

"He was yanking some pitches to the glove side," Farrell told reporters after the game. "First time in four days, he's not in midseason form, and I don't know that anyone is right now. The thing about it is, he creates a little bit of traffic on the basepaths, but the strikeout ability is able to bail him out today."

In fairness, the Sunday save was the real time this season there has been reason to offer any criticism forward Kimbrel. He even cruised through his first non-save situation in pitching an inning against the Pirates in Game No. 2.

The reality is, particularly in the world Farrell's bullpen currently finds itself, that Kimbrel needs to be as good as ever, and perhaps for more April outs than ever. 

Like it or not, this is the world Kimbrel, and the Red Sox, find themselves in one week into this new season.