Is Braves’ closer Craig Kimbrel the next Mariano Rivera?

It seems like a premature question to even ask, but after three superb seasons with Atlanta, it’s time to ask – is Craig Kimbrel the next Mariano Rivera?

Rivera rode off into the sunset after one final, emotional appearance at Yankee Stadium late last month, as he was taken off the mound by longtime teammates Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte. With the title of the game’s best active closer now up for grabs, there’s only one man that comes to mind.

Kimbrel, just 25 years old, has been as impressive as any player in the game over the past three seasons, and will only continue to get better as he matures at the big league level.

But first, let’s look back at the first two season’s Rivera held the Yankees closer role to get some type of a frame of reference.

In 1997, the young Rivera went 4-3 with a 2.10 earned run average, nailing down 46 saves in his first season as the Yankees’ closer. The next season, he followed with a 3-0 record with a minuscule 1.91 ERA and 36 saves. That sets a pretty high bar for any closer – let alone a young reliever looking to make his mark in New York.

Fast forward to 2011, and meet Craig Kimbrel. His unorthodox arm hang as he stares in for the sign draws ridicule from many. But that’ll stop soon enough. That season, he goes 4-3 with a 2.10 ERA and 46 saves. Showing that it was indeed no fluke, he comes back in 2012 with a 3-1 record and a near-unheard of 1.01 earned run average. Oh, and he added 42 saves, as well.

In their first three seasons as big league closers, Kimbrel has nailed down 14 more saves than Rivera had. However, you have to keep in mind that pitching in New York – especially for the Yankees – is completely different than pitching in Atlanta, where there is a quiet expectation for greatness from the Braves – very different than the howls New York ballplayers hear annually.

Kimbrel is great. But for now, it’s a “wait-and-see” approach in terms of comparing the two. Mo has the reputation he has because he maintained his dominance for nearly two decades. That type of greatness is rare, and it is unclear whether or not Kimbrel will show such talent for that long.