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."