Cubs

Craig Kimbrel is still terrific, but there are some warning signs. Just how concerning are they?

kimbrel_theo.jpg
USA Today

Craig Kimbrel is still terrific, but there are some warning signs. Just how concerning are they?

On June 5th, the Cubs finally pulled the trigger on their big offseason move. 

Craig Kimbrel is coming to Wrigley. He will “reportedly” will sign a 3-year, $43 million contract with the team and hopes to be ready by mid-to-late June. 

It’s obviously a big deal for the Cubs. On the field, they desperately needed help in the back end of the bullpen and Kimbrel’s track record speaks for itself. Off of it, Epstein and Co. no longer have to dodge budgetary-constraint conversations, having now provided Cubs fans with exactly the type of player they spent all offseason clamoring for. 

For all of the excitement that the signing justifiably brings, there are concerns, and it’d be naive not to mention them. Kimbrel comes with his warts, a few of which should make Cubs’ fans nervous; he is, after all, 31 years old with 532.2 innings of wear on his arm. 

Control is Kimbrel’s Achilles Heel. Only twice in his eight-year career has he had a below-average walk-rate (‘12 and ‘17). Here’s where he’s ranked, among qualified relievers, in BB% during every season he’s pitched:

‘10:136th (9.8%)
‘11: 36th (10.5%) 
‘12: 112th (6.1%)
‘13: 79th (7.8%) 
‘14: 25th (10.7%)
‘15: 40th (9.2%)
‘16: 3rd (13.6%)
‘17: 140th (5.5%)
‘18: 15th (16.6%) 

It’s admittedly a messy list, and maybe Kimbrel can recapture some of whatever it was that worked in 2010, 2012, or 2017. Even with the outlying years, his control has been getting spottier and spottier over time: 

In his defense, he’s consistently been among the top-10 of qualified relievers in K% over his career. Such is the life of a strikeout pitcher. Still, Cubs fans will soon experience what Braves, Padres, and Red Sox fans have learned: Kimbrel throws a LOT of pitches. He averaged almost 18 pitches per inning last season, and only pitched in multiple innings three times. 

It’s obviously not a deal-breaker, but adding Kimbrel to a bullpen that has the second-highest walk rate in baseball is going to cause issues. The current MLB average for bullpen walk rate is 12.1%. As it stands today, Kimbrel, Brad Brach, and Tyler Chatwood all come in above that. Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. come in less than a percentage point lower. That’s a lot of walks from a lot of important roles within the ‘pen’s structure.  

Some of Kimbrel’s recent batted ball numbers are a bit worrisome too. He’s always been hit hard -- when batters square up 100mph, they REALLY square up -- but 2018 saw some of the hardest contact he’s ever allowed. Kimbrel was only in the 22nd percentile of pitchers when it came to exit velocity, and his 9.3% barrel rate was among the worst in the league. What’s more, his launch angle last year was over double the league average and he allowed more than 1.0 HR/9 for the first time ever. Minus his narrative-busting 2017 season campaign, the contact has gotten worse and worse: 


Since the Cubs are bringing him in to get them there, it’s worth talking about Kimbrel’s performance in the postseason. The numbers: 20.2 IPs, 3.92 ERA, 1.258 WHIP, and 7 saves in 19 games. Not terrible, but not Kimbrelesque either. Remember that it was Chris Sale, not Kimbrel, who came into the game with three outs to go in last year’s World Series clincher. Postseason results --especially for relief pitchers-- can be arbitrary, and no one has playoff success until they do. But there’s no denying that the numbers do look different, and not in a good way. 

Generally speaking, this is all nitpicking. Kimbrel is still really good, and the moment he steps into the Cubs’ bullpen, he immediately becomes their best relief option. He has a *career* strikeout rate above 40%, which is objectively absurd. Batters have a lifetime average below .200 against him. His exaggerated stretch is a fan favorite, as is his ‘Dirty Craig’ nickname. Wrigley Field may be a nervous wreck at times this summer, but considering they blew 7 saves last month, that’s not a particularly new phenomenon. It’s a smart move for the Cubs, and a nice deal for Kimbrel. 

How the Cubs became unwilling symbols in union's fight against MLB owners

How the Cubs became unwilling symbols in union's fight against MLB owners

The Cubs found themselves Thursday at the center of rising tensions in the fight between owners and the players union over terms to play an abbreviated 2020 season during the coronavirus crisis — held up as a symbol of mistrust by the game’s most powerful agent.

In an email to clients obtained by the Associated Press, agent Scott Boras urges players to stand firm on the prorated-salary agreement with MLB struck in March and reminded them of record industry revenues and team valuations that were not reflected in salaries in recent years.

Boras used the heavily-leveraged Ricketts family purchase of the Cubs in 2009 and the family’s subsequent investment in Wrigley Field renovations that he also tied to debt financing in AP’s reporting of the email, which was confirmed by NBC Sports Chicago.

“Throughout this process, they will be able to claim that they never had any profits because those profits went to pay off their loans,” Boras wrote in the email. “However, the end result is that the Ricketts[es] will own improved assets that significantly increases the value of the Cubs — value that is not shared with the players.”

Recipients of the email were asked to “please share this concept with your teammates and fellow players when MLB request[s] further concessions or deferral of salaries.”

A Ricketts representative pushed back on Boras’ claim.

“The Ricketts family invested $750 million to save iconic Wrigley Field for fans today and for future generations. At every level they’ve built the best player facilities in the game,” Dennis Culloton said. “In 2019, the Cubs had one of the top baseball payrolls in the game. The fact of the matter is 70 percent of the team’s revenues which support the baseball operations come from having fans at the ballpark.

“Nevertheless, we thank Mr. Boras for weighing in.”

The Cubs were one of three teams to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold last year and carried a projected payroll into 2020 assured of exceeding it again, barring in-season trades of significant contract obligations.

Boras has talked publicly often in the past decade about the industry issues he raised in the email, including in relation to the Cubs.

It’s also not the first time the Cubs have been at the center of controversial issues during that time. Primarily as a response to new CBA restrictions on amateur signings and to the team’s heavy debt-management costs, the Cubs helped provide the modern-day tanking blueprint now widely in use — the first big-revenue team in the free agency era to use tanking to rebuild.

In this case, the Cubs example raised by Boras comes only two days after Tom Ricketts’ interview with CNBC in which the Cubs chairman suggests the club will make only 20 percent of normal revenue in a “best-case scenario” if an abbreviated season is played.

MORE: Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts: 'We’d definitely like to see baseball back'

Ricketts also estimated team losses include a 70-percent share of total revenues tied solely to stadium attendance.

Some have disputed his numbers — although few dispute the perfect-storm nature of this crisis as it relates to a big-market franchise that expected to start seeing a return on its sizable investment in a new TV network with a 2020 launch.

But owners, who have enjoyed a federal antitrust exemption for more than 100 years, never have opened their financial books to the union and as recently as 2016 and 2017 sold off its BAMTech streaming enterprise to Disney for more than $2 billion — resulting in $50 million payouts to each owner in 2017.

Counterintuitively, the next two free agent winters were the slowest since the collusion winters of the 1980s. And the average major-league salary dropped in consecutive seasons (2017-18) for the first time since the union began tracking salaries more than 50 years ago.

On Tuesday the owners proposed a sliding-scale formula for deeper salary cuts to play roughly half of a normal season — a proposal the union called “extremely disappointing.”

By Thursday the union still had not settled on what it might include in any potential counterproposal, much less when it might present one.

“Remember, games cannot be played without you,” Boras wrote in the email to clients. “Players should not agree to further pay cuts to bail out the owners. Let owners take some of their revenues and profits from the past several years and pay you the prorated salaries you agreed to accept or let them borrow against the asset values they created from the use of those profits players generated.”

On the issue of industry debt that could be impacting the kind of liquidity that might otherwise help owners withstand the crisis, Boras added:

“Make no mistake, owners have chosen to take on these loans because, in normal times, it is a smart financial decision. But these unnecessary choices have now put them in a challenging spot. Players should stand strong because players are not the ones who advised owners to borrow money to purchase their franchises, and players are not the ones who have benefitted from the recent record revenues and profits.”

One report Thursday suggested at least some owners would rather not play this season for fear of losing more money by playing an abbreviated season than not.

Ricketts does not appear to be in that group, saying during that CNBC interview the Cubs “definitely” want to get back on the field this year.

Part of the union’s position on sticking to the prorated-salary agreement from March involves owners’ continued unwillingness to provide enough financial documentation to support their claims of projected losses.

Said Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer, a member of the union’s executive board and a Boras client, in a tweet Wednesday night:

“After discussing the latest developments with the rest of the players there’s no reason to engage with MLB in any further compensation reductions. We have previously negotiated a pay cut in the version of prorated salaries, and there’s no justification to accept a second pay cut based upon the current information the union has received.

"I’m glad to hear other players voicing the same viewpoint and believe MLB’s economic strategy would completely change if all documentation were to become public information.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.

How Cubs affiliates are tackling financial challenges of coronavirus pandemic

How Cubs affiliates are tackling financial challenges of coronavirus pandemic

The Myrtle Beach Pelicans were scheduled to host a happy hour on Thursday. But Tropical Storm Bertha, which hit the South Carolina coast Wednesday morning, had different plans. General manager Ryan Moore rearranged his schedule, pushing back an interview 15 minutes, to address the fallout.

“So 2020,” he posted to Twitter.

The Cubs Class A Advanced affiliate postponed happy hour until next week.

With the Minor League Baseball season suspended indefinitely, and an increasing number of states reopening their economies, the Cubs affiliates are relying on other activities to help weather the blow of the coronavirus pandemic. The MiLB season hasn’t been officially cancelled, but it’s expected to be.

Officials from all four of the Cubs full-season affiliates wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a minor league season, but all four acknowledged that their optimism was fading.

“Personally, I don’t think we’ll have a minor league season,” said Chris Allen, president of the Double-A Tennessee Smokies. “I hope we do; I hope I’m wrong. It just seems like there are too many moving parts to put this together. I see what they’re trying to do at the Major League level, and it seems like it’s just too much to pull off with every state and municipality having different rules and regulations.”

The Oakland A’s actions this week supported Allen’s suspicions.

MLB announced in March a league-wide commitment to providing minor league players with $400 weekly stipends and medical benefits through the end of May. The White Sox and Rangers have promised to extend that support through the month of June. As of Wednesday evening, the Cubs had not announced their plan. But on Tuesday, the A’s reportedly informed their minor league players that their stipends wouldn’t continue past May 31.

“When you're reading articles like that,” said Joe Hart, president of the Class-A South Bend Cubs, “I think that just kind of further lessens my optimism about having a season because you're not going to stop paying guys if you're going to actually have a season.”

MLB’s official decision on the fate of the minor league season has taken a back seat to negotiations with the MLBPA. Until the league delivers its final word, the Cubs affiliates are scheduling what events they can.

“The timing of this couldn't be any worse for Minor League Baseball,” Moore said. “We've incurred the majority of our expenses already, ramping up for the start of the season, and have zero revenue.”

Players and coaches are on the parent clubs’ payrolls, but the affiliates are responsible for most of the other costs associated with running a baseball team. Unlike MLB, which has lucrative TV deals, the minor leagues’ business plans rely on fans in the stands.

“I don’t have any revenue if I can’t sell tickets, and I can’t sell Cokes and beers and hot dogs and souvenir hats,” said Sam Bernabe, president of the Triple-A Iowa Cubs. “That’s how I make my money. I don’t have any other revenue sources.”

Even sponsorship money disappears when there’s no one to see the advertisements in the ballpark.

“Given the opportunity to play games without fans, we would actually lose more money,” Hart said, “because now you're turning on lights, you’re trying to maintain the field on a daily basis to play at that level.”

Minor League teams are already practiced in fan and community engagement – that’s often a key piece to drawing crowds – but they’ve had to get even more creative since the season suspension.

The I-Cubs, Smokies and Pelicans all plan to host high school baseball events this summer. The South Bend Cubs are scheduled to host travel ball tournaments in June. All four are poised to welcome fans into their ballparks for those games, with health-and-safety restrictions like social distancing in place.

The teams are considering non-baseball events as well, like company picnics, outdoor religious services, food and beer festivals.

The Pelicans also obtained a Paycheck Protection Program loan, according to Moore, but he describes it as a “Band-Aid.”

“Where we need a tourniquet,” he said.

That is the case for many of the minor league teams’ workarounds this summer. Bernabe estimated that the Iowa Cubs would still need a least the next two years’ revenue to cover the losses from this season. If the U.S. is hit with a second COIVD-19 peak, it will take longer to recover.

Even layers of Band-Aids can’t do the job.