Nats' Kimball Trends In Right Direction In Relief Role

ALLENTOWN, Pa.—Cole Kimball's premium velocity got him noticed as an amateur at tiny Centenary College in Hackettstown, N.J., but it's the righthander's makeup that may soon earn him a spot in the Nationals bullpen.

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Kimball serves as Syracuse's primary closer this season, his third as a full-time reliever. A 12th-round pick in 2006, he started his last game on Aug. 29, 2008, throwing seven, two-hit innings for low Class A Hagerstown against Lakewood.

Kimball logged 128 innings for the Suns during that '08 season, going 6-8, 5.05 and striking out 122 batters (or 8.6 per nine innings). On the flip side, he walked 83 batters (or 5.8 per nine), hit another 17 and generally worked around trouble with an average of about 1.4 baserunners per inning.

So when Kimball reported to high Class A Potomac in 2009, his job description read "reliever."

"When we get guys with good arms early in their careers we try to put them in a starter's role so they can pitch more," Syracuse manager Randy Knorr said. "It gives them a chance to use all their pitches. After a while we try to determine what he's going to be: a starter or a reliever. We put (Kimball) in the reliever role and he just took off with it."

Working as a reliever in 2009-10, Kimball breezed through the Carolina and Eastern leagues, relying on a heavy, low- to mid-90s fastball and a quality splitter to rack up 153 strikeouts in 125 innings. As a reliever, his walk rate dropped to 4.8 per nine—not great but acceptable for a one-inning reliever who doesn't give up many hits or home runs.

Pitching In

Washington's top prospective relief arm, the 25-year-old Kimball ranks behind only A.J. Cole and Sammy Solis, a pair of top picks from the 2010 draft, on the organization's pitching-prospect depth chart.

Kimball saved 18 games in 23 chances last season between Potomac and Double-A Harris-burg. He factored in Syracuse's first three wins this spring with a win and two saves.

"Because of his energy level, being in the bullpen has really helped him," said Knorr, who also managed Kimball in Harrisburg last season and with Scottsdale in the Arizona Fall League. "He goes after guys. He's confident. He doesn't mess around with guys. That's what I like about him."

Kimball's work in the AFL last fall earned him a spot on the Nationals' 40-man roster in November. He struck out 15, walked two and allowed eight hits in 12 relief innings.

Despite the offseason helium, Kimball had little chance of cracking Washington's crowded bullpen this spring. Holdovers like closer Drew Storen, lefties Sean Burnett and Doug Slaten and righthanders Tyler Clippard and newcomer Todd Coffey received top priority.

"It was my first (big league spring training) camp," Kimball said. "They had some guys they traded for and signed in the offseason. They had to get a look at them. There are a few guys who could have made the team. But as soon as they need somebody, anybody (with Syracuse) is going to be ready to go."

Kimball relied on his fastball at NCAA Division-III Centenary, where he struck out 139 in 136 innings over two seasons. His collegiate career began at St. John's before he transferred to Centenary, a wood-bat program at the time, to play ball in his hometown.

"When I was at St. John's I would go home for the summer and a lot of the guys from the baseball team were hanging around," Kimball said. "One of my close friends was an assistant coach at (Centenary) at the time. I talked to him when I was interested in transferring from St. John's and he said, 'Why not come here?' "

Centenary claimed the Skyline Athletic Conference title in 2005 and '06, Kimball's two seasons with the program.

"We had three starting pitchers throwing 90-plus," Kimball said. "They certainly weren't riding me."

Sprint To The Finish Line

Regarded as more thrower than pitcher during his first few seasons in the Nationals system, Kimball fell behind in spring 2009 when a strained oblique muscle forced him to spend extended time in Florida rehabbing.

His fortunes improved dramatically once he took the field in mid-May, as he had ascended to closer for Potomac. In 2010, he increased his workload by 30 innings while also increasing his strikeout rate and decreasing his walk rate.

"I learned how to pitch last year out of the bullpen," Kimball said. "Guys go to the bullpen sometimes and they say, 'God I wish I could be a starter, and guys who are starters wish they could be relievers.' I'm happy were I'm at.

"They were talking about moving me to the bullpen in spring training of '09 when I got hurt in extended. The quickest way out of extended was to go two or three innings every day or so instead of waiting four days to go five innings."

The move has paid off for Kimball and the Nationals. He's developed a nice splitter that he throws in the mid-80s, and he has confidence in his curveball early in the count. Scouts project he could be a decent set-up man as early as this season.

"He's durable, he likes to throw every day, and that's what we like to see in our relievers," Knorr said. "We're trying to prepare them for all different scenarios because we don't know how they're going to be used up there."

Kimball has embraced the decision of moving him to the pen.

"It's fun being able to pitch every day," he said. "When you're a starter there's a lot of down time. I find it more enjoyable when you come to the park you know you have a chance to get into the game."

Everett Merrill is a freelance writer 
based in North Plainfield, N.J.