Prospect Smackdown: Jeremy Jeffress vs. Craig Kimbrel
Some readers asked me to compare a pair of future/potential closers, Jeremy Jeffress of the Kansas City Royals, and Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves.
Background and Intangibles
Jeffress: Jeremy Jeffress was drafted in the first round by the Brewers in 2006, out of high school in South Boston, Virginia. The 16th overall pick, he signed for $1.55 million. He probably had the best fastball in the draft class, hitting 98-102 MPH in rookie ball, and flashing potential with his breaking ball. His control was erratic and he was raw, but the arm was amazing. He pitched well in 2007 in the South Atlantic League, but tested positive for marijuana use and drew a 50-game suspension. He continued to impress with his arm strength in 2008, but further problems with pot usage in '09 resulted in a 100-game suspension that carried over into 2010 and raised serious doubts about his commitment to the game. He pitched just 50 innings in '09 with control problems, but showed improved command in 2010 and made his major league debut. He was traded to the Royals in the Zack Greinke deal. Despite his problems with marijuana, I have heard from more than one source that Jeffress isn't a bad kid and just needs to grow up. The Brewers hoped that being used in relief would help him focus day-to-day and keep him out of off-field trouble, and it seemed to work last year.
Kimbrel: Kimbrel was drafted by the Braves in the 33rd round in 2007 out of Wallace State Community College but did not sign. The Braves tried again in 2008 with a third round pick and this time got their man, signing him for $391,000. He performed extremely well in the low minors, reached Triple-A in late 2009 and spent most of '10 there, dominating the International League despite occasional control problems. Promoted to the majors in August, he showed outstanding potential out of the Braves bullpen late in the year, positioning himself as the probable closer entering Spring Training, though he may share time with Jon Venters. By all accounts, Kimbrel relishes relief work and has the makeup scouts want in a closer.
Advantage: You have to go with Kimbrel here, although I don't think Jeffress is a lost cause in terms of makeup.
Physicality, Health, and Tools
Jeffress: Jeffress is a 6-0, 195 pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born September 21st, 1987. He is an outstanding natural athlete who generates easy velocity; he doesn't have a lot of effort in his delivery but still hits 95-100 MPH without problems. His fastball can be a bit straight but it's so fast that hitters still have a hard time picking it up, and he usually picks up a good number of grounders. His second pitch is a wicked curveball, giving him two overpowering offerings. Attempts to develop a changeup haven't worked out, but in relief the fastball/curveball combination is more than enough, as long as he throws strikes. His command is inconsistent. At times he does a good job throwing strikes and is unhittable when he does so, but he is still prone to overthrowing and will give up free passes when that happens. He has had no significant health issues.
Kimbrel: Kimbrel is a 5-11, 205 pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born May 28th, 1988. He is shorter than ideal for a right-handed pitcher but physically strong, and scouts don't care about his height due to his 93-98 MPH sinking fastball. His breaking ball is variously described as a curve, slurve, or slider, but it rates as a plus pitch whatever you want to call it. He has a decent changeup but relies mostly on the fastball/breaking ball combination. His command is inconsistent and frequently below average due to the movement on his pitches, but the same movement that results in too many walks also results in few hits, at least so far. He has had no significant health issues.
Advantage: Jeffress has better peak velocity, but Kimbrel has somewhat better movement. Both have nasty breaking balls, although I prefer Jeffress' curve. Both of them have control issues, but throw so hard that they've been able to succeed without perfect command. Both have been healthy physically. Jeffress is a better athlete and has a smoother delivery to my eye, and that gives him a slight edge in this department.
Jeffress: Jeffress pitched at three minor league levels after returning from his suspension last year, posting a 2.23 ERA with a 43/12 K/BB in 32 innings with just 18 hits allowed and a 2.18 GO/AO. Although the sample was small, his 11-game tenure for Double-A Huntsville was especially impressive, with a 15/2 K/BB and just eight hits allowed in 14.1 innings. His command was excellent at that level, and it shows what he's capable of when everything is going well with his control, resulting in a 1.73 FIP. He pitched 10 innings in the majors, allowing eight hits and three earned runs, but with an 8/6 K/BB. He then walked 12 guys in 12 innings in the Arizona Fall League, though he fanned 14 and continued to impress scouts with his stuff.
Kimbrel: Kimbrel spent most of 2010 with Triple-A Gwinnet, posting a 1.62 ERA with an 83/35 K/BB in 56 innings with just 28 hits allowed, with a 1.73 GO/AO. His K/IP and H/IP marks were exceptional, but the walk rate was very high, raising his FIP to 3.02, granted it didn't hurt him that badly. Promoted to the majors, he posted a 0.44 ERA in 21 games, 20.2 innings for the Braves, allowing a mere nine hits for a .125 average against. He fanned 40, but walked 16. . .again, outstanding "stuff" indicators with the K/IP and the hit rates, but a lot of walks. His FIP was 1.53 compared to his 0.44 ERA. . .but, well, a 1.53 FIP is terrific. Even his xFIP was strong at 2.59.
Advantage: Because of Jeffress' drug issues, Kimbrel has a larger data set from 2010 and at a higher level of competition. Both pitchers showed tremendous K/IP and H/IP marks, reflecting their quality stuff. Jeffress, belying his reputation, actually flashed better command than Kimbrel during his Double-A trial. Jeffress held his own in major league action, but Kimbrel dominated despite his issues with walks. Both of these guys showed they can make hitters look bad when things are going right, but I think we have to give Kimbrel the edge on current performance.
Jeffress: Jeffress projects as an overpowering major league closer, especially if he gets his control anywhere close to what he showed at Huntsville.
Kimbrel: Kimbrel projects as an overpowering major league closer, though he may have some bumps and bruises if he keeps walking close to a hitter per inning.
Advantage: Both of these guys project as bullpen mainstays even without perfect command.
I rate them even in terms of projection as closers. Kimbrel has the edge in makeup and current performance. Jeffress has an edge on physicality and tools. All told, Kimbrel comes out a bit ahead of Jeffress, and that is how I rated them on my Top 50 pitching prospects list, both with B+ grades but with Kimbrel one notch ahead.