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The Craig Kimbrel Conundrum: Closer a major question mark for 2020 Cubs

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USA TODAY

The Craig Kimbrel Conundrum: Closer a major question mark for 2020 Cubs

The last time Cubs fans saw Craig Kimbrel on the mound, he was staring bewildered at the left-field bleachers after serving up homers to the Cardinals on back-to-back pitches. It was a moment that became the dagger for the 2019 Cubs, even if it didn't officially eliminate them from postseason contention.

That Sept. 21 outing marked Kimbrel's third blown save and fourth loss of the season and the Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong homers were the eighth and ninth longballs the Cubs closer gave up in just 23 outings and 20.2 innings.

Nobody associated with the Cubs saw things playing out quite like this when they signed him in early June. Even Kimbrel's doubters who believed his struggles at the end of his Red Sox tenure were a harbinger of things to come couldn't have anticipated a 6.53 ERA and 1.60 WHIP from a guy who had a career line of a 1.91 ERA and 0.92 WHIP coming into 2019.

So where do the Cubs go from here?

Kimbrel is still owed $16 million for 2020 and 2021 and is the only truly established pitcher the Cubs currently have in their bullpen for next season with Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Pedro Strop and others ticketed for free agency.

The Cubs opted to shut down Kimbrel for the final week of 2019 to get healthy after dealing with knee and elbow issues but neither injury will require surgery this winter, Theo Epstein said.

"He's really determined to have a great offseason and looking forward to a full and legitimate spring training," Epstein said. "He feels awful about the way this year went, recognized that he was in an unusual position, but I think you'll see a really determined individual who will benefit from the full spring training."

The Cubs better hope so.

For a franchise that is going to again have to take their budget into account when building the 2020 roster, that $16 million price tag is an awful lot if Kimbrel cannot return to the elite closer he was before coming to Chicago.

But even beyond that, the Cubs absolutely need him to lock down the ninth inning. Rowan Wick impressed in 2019 and emerged as maybe the team's best reliever down the stretch, but he doesn't have much of a track record. The same goes for lefties Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck. The Cubs have reason to feel optimistic about all three pitchers as up-and-coming relievers, but putting too much stock into a trio of guys without much experience is an easy way to run into major bullpen problems. 

Right now, those are the only four names you can confidently pencil into the 2020 bullpen, though other in-house options loom (Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Danny Hultzen, Duane Underwood Jr., etc.) depending on how the Cubs configure their rotation and the rest of the roster.

There's obvious concern surrounding Kimbrel, but there's also a reasonable case to be confident 2020 will be a different story. In his entire career, he has served up homers at a rate of just 0.72 per 9 innings, so his 3.92 HR/9 this season is a clear aberration that not even the juiced ball can full explain away. 

The velocity dip (down nearly 1 mph from 2018 and 2 mph from 2017) is scary, but may also be related to the odd year Kimbrel had. 

Baseball players — and closers, in particular — are very routine-oriented and no plan can make up for a situation that saw Kimbrel facing live hitters nearly four months later than usual. He's used to throwing off a mound and ramping up in spring training in mid-February and was instead still in a free agency stalemate until early June.

When he was signed, it was viewed as a clear upgrade for the Cubs, who were plagued by early-season bullpen issues. They were only able to afford Kimbrel because Ben Zobrist took a leave of absence and left several million dollars on the table for Epstein to put towards addressing an obvious weakness on the roster.

At the time, signing a World Champion closer on a Hall of Fame trajectory was the best possible way Epstein could shore up the bullpen.

"There was some element of risk, because of the unknown of an elite closer coming in mid-season," Epstein said on the team's final road trip. "That's a risk we were prepared to take because of the opportunity that presented itself. The resources got opened up with Zo's absence and the opportunity of an elite closer sitting there for a contract that was certainly reasonable compared to what most guys of his ilk were getting over the long-term. 

"So, we were prepared to take that. We thought it was a really good fit and we were prepared to take that risk. It hasn't turned out as we had hoped. It obviously [killed] Craig that he wasn't able to help down the stretch here. The two trips to the DL and not being able to reach his accustomed level on a consistent basis, you have to think it's related to not having his normal foundation underneath him. It's something we'll certainly talk to him about and how to have a really effective offseason and get back to his normal Spring Training, so he can get back to being himself consistently."

Top 20 MLB Draft prospects: Who will Cubs take with No. 16 pick?

Top 20 MLB Draft prospects: Who will Cubs take with No. 16 pick?

Stick with what works or keep trying to fix what’s broken?

That’s what faces the Cubs in the first round of next week’s MLB Draft.

The Cubs have had an incredible stretch of selecting position players with their first-round picks since Theo Epstein & Co. took over: Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner. But with the farm system failing to produce much in the way of impact pitching at the big league level, they’ve stocked up on pitching recently, with three first-round picks in the last three drafts spent on pitchers: Brendon Little, Alex Lange and Ryan Jensen.

After missing the playoffs for the first time in the last five years, the Cubs have their highest draft pick since taking Happ with the No. 9 selection in 2015. This year, they’ll pick at No. 16.

But this year’s draft is going to look a lot different for plenty of other reasons, with only five rounds as owners look to cut costs. Revenues are expected to dip dramatically with the 2020 season impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and eliminating the millions handed out to draft picks as signing bonuses is one move amid the financial maneuvering. But nonetheless, when the first round is all said and done June 10, the Cubs will walk away with a talented player to add to their bright future.

Who will they take? Baseball teams don’t draft for need like NFL and NBA teams do, so looking at the big league roster and even the minor league system, as a whole, offers little in the way of clues to even what position the Cubs will spend their top pick on.

So here’s a look at the top 20 prospects in the draft, as rated by the folks over at MLB Pipeline. One of them could be the next hyped Cubs prospect.

1. Spencer Torkelson, 1B, Arizona State University

A power-hitting Pac-12 first baseman, Torkelson is getting compared to White Sox prospect Andrew Vaughn, who was the No. 3 overall pick last summer. Torkelson hit a combined 48 homers during his freshman and sophomore seasons and walked 31 times in just 17 games before his junior season was halted by the coronavirus. The Cubs likely won’t have the opportunity to draft him, though. MLB Pipeline’s Jonathan Mayo has Torkelson going No. 1 overall to the Tigers in his mock draft.

2. Austin Martin, OF/3B, Vanderbilt University

Described by MLB Pipeline as “the best pure hitter in the draft,” Martin has plenty of versatility. He played third base, center field and a few other positions at Vandy. But the bat’s the thing. He posted a .410 batting average and a .503 on-base percentage in 59 games during the 2019 season. Mayo’s got Martin going No. 2 to the Orioles, who took college baseball’s best player, Adley Rutschman, with the No. 1 pick a year ago.

3. Asa Lacy, LHP, Texas A&M University

A hard-throwing lefty, Lacy dominated during his sophomore season, with a 2.13 ERA in 15 starts. He struck out 130 opposing batters in 88.2 innings. And he was on his way toward following that up this year, too, having allowed just two runs in his first four starts of the season. Mayo has Lacy going to the Marlins with the No. 3 pick.

4. Emerson Hancock, RHP, University of Georgia

In his first 10 starts last season, Hancock allowed just eight runs. A lat injury knocked him out for two weeks, but his numbers still looked mighty good at season’s end: a 1.99 ERA with just 20 earned runs allowed in 14 starts. He struck out 97 and walked only 18. Mayo’s projection has Hancock going to the Mariners with the No. 6 pick.

5. Nick Gonzales, SS/2B, New Mexico State University

The MVP of last summer’s wood-bat Cape Cod League, Gonzales can hit. He put up insane numbers as a sophomore, with a .432 batting average, a .532 on-base percentage and a bonkers 1.305 OPS. In the small sample size that was the 16 games he got to play as a junior, he was even more ridiculous, getting on base at a .610 clip and homering 12 times in 16 games to contribute to a mind-scrambling 1.765 OPS. Cubs fans might not want to hold out hope of Gonzales landing on the North Side: Mayo’s got him going to the Royals at No. 4.

6. Garrett Mitchell, OF, University of California-Los Angeles

He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast, he plays center field. Sounds like the kind of guy a lot of big league clubs would want to mold into a star. Mitchell had 12 triples, 41 RBIs and 18 stolen bases in 62 games as a sophomore last year for the Bruins and a .984 OPS that will make anyone pay attention. But he didn’t hit that many homers, and that’s why Mayo has him all the way down at No. 17 in his mock draft.

7. Zac Veen, OF, Spruce Creek High School (Florida)

Rated as the best high school hitter in the draft, Veen is a lefty who MLB Pipeline said has “reminded some of Cody Bellinger offensively.” That sounds good. They say he might not stick in center field, but he’s got enough talent to rank as the lone high schooler in the site’s top 10 list. Mayo’s got him as the fifth player off the board, going to the Blue Jays.

8. Reid Detmers, LHP, University of Louisville

An Illinois native, from Chatham, south of Springfield, MLB Pipeline calls Detmers “the most polished left-hander available.” A strong sophomore season helped the Cardinals reach the College World Series last year. He logged a 2.85 ERA in 17 starts, with 162 strikeouts compared to just 27 walks. Before this season came to a sudden end, he struck out 48 batters in only 22 innings. In his mock draft, Mayo has Detmers heading to the Pirates with the No. 7 pick, perhaps the Illinois native eventually terrorizing his home-state team with a division rival.

9. Max Meyer, RHP, University of Minnesota

The Twins drafted this Land of 10,000 Lakes product back in 2017. But he didn’t sign, and after winning 100 games last season, they likely won’t get a crack at Meyer this time around. He was moved from the bullpen to the rotation in the middle of last season, and in 16 appearances overall, he posted a 2.11 ERA. He was doing more of the same this year, with a 1.95 ERA in four starts. MLB Pipeline says he’s got the best slider in the draft, so he might not slide very far down the board. Mayo’s got him going to the Padres at No. 8.

10. Heston Kjerstad, OF, University of Arkansas

MLB Pipeline says Kjerstad, who reached the College World Series in each of his first two college seasons, is second only to the top-ranked prospect, Torkelson, when it comes to power. He might not be the fastest, but he can mash, with 30 home runs and 108 RBIs in 132 career college games. He was off to the races this season, with a 1.304 OPS in 16 games. If Mayo’s mock hits, Kjerstad could see those college power numbers become big league reality, forecasted to go to the Rockies at No. 9.

RELATED: 2020 MLB Draft to be held remotely, like NFL Draft before it

11. Mick Abel, RHP, Jesuit High School (Oregon)

The highest ranked high school pitcher in the draft, Abel was the Gatorade Player of the Year in the Beaver State after winning the state title there. Mayo has him going to the Giants at No. 13.

12. Jared Kelley, RHP, Refugio High School (Texas)

The top-ranked high school pitcher when the year started, Kelley is said to be the Lone Star State’s finest high school arm in a decade. The kid can chuck, and MLB Pipeline says he “has the look of a frontline starter who could reach the big leagues before he turns 21.” OK then. Mayo has him falling to the Mets at No. 19.

13. Austin Hendrick, OF, West Allegheny High School (Pennsylvania)

While the Cubs are picking at No. 16, they could get themselves a steal, should the projections and evaluations of the folks at MLB Pipeline play out. Mayo has Hendrick falling to the Cubs in his mock draft. With plenty of left-handed power, Hendrick could one day be a heavy-hitting right fielder in the majors. MLB Pipeline says “there isn't a high school hitter in the country with more upside.” Strikeouts are mentioned as a concern, but that’s usually not too big a problem as long as he keeps hitting balls into the seats — or if Mayo’s mock comes true, onto Sheffield Avenue.

14. Nick Bitsko, RHP, Central Bucks East High School (Pennsylvania)

An early high school graduate, when Bitsko’s drafted next month, it will come a few days before his 18th birthday. It could be a very nice birthday present for the 6-foot-4 17-year-old, who got a rave review from MLB Pipeline for his command. But Mayo doesn’t even have him going in the first round of his mock draft, perhaps a reflection of Bitsko’s commitment to the University of Virginia.

15. Ed Howard, SS, Mount Carmel High School (Illinois)

A Chicago native, Howard was a member of the Jackie Robinson West team that finished runner up in the Little League World Series in 2014. There are plenty of fans who would love to see the hometown team take a local kid at No. 16 in the draft. MLB Pipeline describes him as a “smooth defender” with quick hands and a strong arm who makes “repeated strong contact” to go along with good speed and a high baseball IQ. He’s now the Land of Lincoln’s Gatorade Player of the Year, too.


But will the Cubs grab him if he’s there at No. 16? Mayo has Howard sliding all the way to No. 27 — where the Twins, who employed homestater Joe Mauer for quite some time, could provide a reminder of why not to pass on the kids from your own backyard.

16. Robert Hassell, OF, Independence High School (Tennessee)

As mentioned, any of the above players could certainly fall to the Cubs at No. 16. But while one or more of the top 15 prospects could still be around when they go on the clock, they’re guaranteed at least one of the players ranked in the top 16, a number that gets bigger the further down the list we go. Described as “the best pure hitter in the 2020 prep class,” the left-handed hitting Hassell starred for Team USA last September. He’s also a bit of a two-way star, with MLB Pipeline calling him “a legitimate prospect as a pitcher, as well,” though a much better one as a hitter. He’s committed to reigning College World Series champion Vanderbilt University, but Mayo has him mocked as a top-10 pick, going to the Angels at No. 10.

17. Patrick Bailey, C, North Carolina State University

Bailey is expected to be the first catcher off the board, and his offensive numbers from college are pretty excellent: a career .322/.429/.602 slash line in 84 games with the Wolfpack. His 13 homers as a freshman two years ago set a school record. But Bailey’s strength is his defense, with MLB Pipeline saying “he's more athletic and moves better than most catchers.” Mayo has the White Sox selecting Bailey with the No. 11 pick.

18. Garrett Crochet, LHP, University of Tennessee

Towering at 6-foot-6, Crochet can whip it, with his fastball reaching triple digits last fall. Striking out 81 batters in 65 innings, he pitched the Volunteers to the program’s first-ever win in the NCAA tournament last year but raised some red flags this year, limited with shoulder soreness. Mayo has him going to the Rangers at No. 14.

19. Tyler Soderstrom, C, Turlock High School (California)

The backup catcher on his own high school team, Soderstrom is described as a better hitter than he is a defender. But he’s good enough with the bat — “polished” is the word MLB Pipeline used to describe the left-handed hitter — to rank pretty high among the draft’s best prospects. Mayo has him going to the Phillies at No. 15.

20. Pete Crow-Armstrong, OF, Harvard-Westlake High School (California)

If the name of that high school sounds familiar, it’s becoming a bit of a baseball factory. White Sox ace Lucas Giolito, Cardinals young gun Jack Flaherty and Braves pitcher Max Fried all played on the same team. Crow-Armstrong is set to be the fifth player drafted out of Harvard-Westlake in the last nine years. How high will he go? Strikeouts and power are listed as potential concerns, but he’s fast and MLB Pipeline says he “might be the best defensive outfielder in the class.” Mayo’s got him going to the Diamondbacks at No. 18.

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Why former Cub Bobby Scales, now a baseball exec, needed to 'make my voice known'

Why former Cub Bobby Scales, now a baseball exec, needed to 'make my voice known'

Bobby Scales held up a lime-green object so the others on the Zoom session could see it.

“This is my cell phone case. It’s neon green. I hate this thing,” said the former Cubs infielder who’s now the minor-league field coordinator for the Pirates.

“The reason I keep it neon green is because if I get pulled over, and I’m sitting in my car and it’s in my cupholder, there’s no thought that that’s a gun,” he said. “You’re not going to say I went to draw for something.”

It’s one of several examples Scales shared on the latest episode of the Cubs Talk Podcast of the countless ways being black in America impacts daily thoughts and actions, some smaller, some larger and all collectively exhausting, especially at what might be a “tipping point” moment for the country after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Scales, 42, was a feel-good story for the Cubs in 2009 when he made his big-league debut after persevering through a decade in the minors. He was also a rarity as one of a dwindling number of African-American players in the the majors.

He’s even more of a rarity in that regard as a front-office executive in a sport that has become even whiter in its executive and on-field management positions in recent years.

Scales, a passionate advocate for a game that might be reaching its own cultural tipping point, talks about the power of sports to drive public discourse and change, as well as the shortcomings MLB faces in that effort as “one of the true last bastions of the real old boys’ network.”

Baseball lags behind the other major American sports in tolerating political or social advocacy, never mind dissent. And its fewer and fewer non-white American insiders have found stronger voices in this national moment of outrage and protest — whether it’s former Cubs outfielder Dexter Fowler on social media, Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward on the airwaves or Scales this week on a Chicago podcast.

RELATED: Cubs' Jason Heyward on racial injustice: 'It feels like a broken record'

Baseball might be a tough culture from which to speak out.

“But that doesn’t mean you [should] be afraid to do so,” Scales said. “That’s why I’ve made my voice known.”

Scales, who talked briefly with the Cubs about a front office job at a time he wanted instead to keep playing in Japan, eventually became a farm director for the Angels before joining the Pirates and is considered a rising star among executives in the game.

That could make him one of its more important voices for the kind of change urgently needed in a sport that long ago began losing its appeal with younger Americans, that has a pace-of-play problem, that clings to a culture of “unwritten rules” that discourage bat flips and fist pumps (read: joy), and that has a growing racial gap to bridge in this country — certainly compared to the participants and fans of football and basketball.

“I love this game. I don’t want to have to love another game,” Scales said. “I love this game. I want to work in this game. I want to effect change. I want to affect the lives of young men, in this game. So I want the best for it, too.”

It’s a game that for better and for worse has often reflected American culture, from its six decades of strident segregation to its seven decades of imperfect integration and all its labor battles, drug scandals and tech booms throughout.

And if this moment of outrage and backlash in American history actually is the tipping point that leads, finally, to measurable change in a way that the deaths of Amadou Diallo (1999), Eric Garner (2014) or Sandra Bland (2015) did not, then maybe there’s even hope for a more outspoken and inclusive culture in baseball.

“Every white listener of this podcast, I want you to understand,” said Scales, whose family history includes a great grandmother who marched on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965 across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

“One, we’re not making this stuff up,” he said. “This stuff is real; it happens every day. And, two, we’re really, really over it. 

“It’s time. Give it up. 

“What are we so scared of in this country that we cannot talk through?”

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