KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Jason Heyward has deservedly drawn the attention of the baseball world. But the 20-year-old phenom certainly isn't the only young player who has routinely drawn praise from Braves manager Bobby Cox since Spring Training began.
While Heyward was drilling a pair of doubles in an 8-5 split-squad win the Braves claimed over the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla., on Sunday afternoon, Craig Kimbrel was preparing to complete what would be a scoreless eighth inning in an 8-5 loss to the Astros.
Armed with a plus fastball that sits above 95 mph, Kimbrel opened and closed the eighth with strikeouts. In between he saw a routine popup misplayed into an infield single for Alex Romero, who was then promptly picked off first by the hard-throwing reliever, who could serve as the Braves' closer in the near future.
"He's really close [to being Major League ready], " Cox said. "All he needs to do is harness a little bit better control and he could be a legitimate closer, not a setup guy. He's got the capability to do it. Let's just hope he does it."
Labeled as "the right-landed Billy Wagner," Kimbrell will need to wait until Wagner is done completing his tenure as the Braves' closer before he is considered for the role. In addition, he will need to harness the control issues that led him to issue 39 walks in the 40 innings that he completed above Class A last year.
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"When he's throwing strikes, he's very impressive," Cox said of the 21-year-old, who was selected in the third round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft and then spent last year tallying 103 strikeouts at three different Minor League levels.
Kimbrel has surrendered two hits, issued two walks and recorded four strikeouts over the three innings he has completed since the start of the Grapefruit League season.
With his 5-foot-9 frame and aggressive arm action, Kimbrel has the unique ability to at least provide the appearance that his fastball rises as it nears the plate.
"That ball of his jumps at you," Cox said. "There's not a lot of pitchers out there that have a ball that jumps at you. His does. A scientist will tell you that it's an illusion, but it does come up a little bit. It looks like it's going to be low, and it's not."
Cox has described Kimbrel's fastball as being a much harder version of the one that Sid Fernandez used to throw during his successful days with the Mets. In addition, Cox has drawn a comparison to the fastball that was thrown by (Sudden) Sam McDowell, a left-hander who provided the Braves manager fits back in his playing days.
"Whenever McDowell would pitch, whatever the umpire said was fine, whether it was low or high, because I couldn't tell," Cox said. "It just exploded off you. You would think it was six inches off the ground, and it was right there. Scientists say that is [garbage]. It's not."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.