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Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters to close

Associated Press

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The Atlanta Braves are finding that former closer Billy Wagner -- and his 422 career saves -- aren't easy to replace.

So they won't try to do it with just one person.

Kimbrel
Kimbrel
Venters
Venters

Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel will enter the season sharing the closer's role. Manager Fredi Gonzalez isn't concerned about not having a full-time answer for the ninth inning.

"In a perfect world, you'd like to name one guy, but I can't sit here and say May 15 is going to be the day or June 20," he said. "Maybe we'll go the whole way. It's not a bad thing. It really isn't."

Neither the left-handed Venters nor the right-handed Kimbrel started last season in the major leagues, so neither has much experience. Kimbrel, 22, at least had been a closer in the minor leagues.

That will enable Gonzalez to mix and match, depending on whether left-handed or right-handed hitters are coming up.

"It's a luxury ... that we have two guys that have closer stuff," general manager Frank Wren said.

Both showed great promise last season and the bullpen again appears to be a plus, even with Wagner's retirement.

"Craig's got a crazy arm and I expect he'll be running out there for the ninth most times," Venters said. "But if they stick me in there, I'm comfortable with it. I feel good about it. I feel like I have a good mentality for it. I like to go right at guys and see what happens."

Venters, who turned 26 on Sunday, was a starter before joining the Atlanta bullpen early last season. Appearing in 79 games a year ago, his hard sinker baffled major league hitters as he posted a 1.95 ERA and struck out 93 batters in 83 innings. Opponents hit just .203 off him.

He hasn't allowed a run yet this spring and has given up just two hits in his eight one-inning outings.

Kimbrel, who dominated at times last season after coming up for good in the minors, has a fastball that reaches the high 90s and a knee-buckling curveball. He was 4-0 with a 0.44 ERA and struck out 40 in 20 2/3 innings with the Braves.

Control is his only real issue. He struggled in two of his first three appearances this spring. But he has six straight scoreless outings, in which he has allowed one hit while striking out eight and walking one in six innings.

"We miss Billy Wagner," Venters said. "He really taught me a lot last season and I know he helped Craig, too. But I think we still have a good bullpen. Now it's our time to show it."