DENVER – Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel has been an All-Star so many times that his jersey Tuesday needed two rows under the No. 46 on the back. Five stars on the top row, three more on the bottom.
Still, on the eve of his eighth All-Star Game, Kimbrel bristled at the mention of his Hall of Fame candidacy.
“I really don’t like it,” said Kimbrel, who in the All-Star game Tuesday gave up one hit in a scoreless 2/3 of an inning. “I’ve heard it for a long time. … That talk started when I was 25 years old.”
Kimbrel made his MLB debut for Atlanta in 2010, and he led the league in saves for the next four years straight. He, of course, earned an All-Star selection in each of those seasons.
Maybe Hall of Fame talk was premature then. But now, the 33-year-old is ninth on the all-time saves list and has the most of any active pitcher (368).
Kimbrel hit a rough patch to start his Cubs tenure. Fresh off a World Series Championship with the Red Sox, his free agency stretched into June. Then, after missing Spring Training, and while dealing with in-season injury, Kimbrel posted a career-high 6.53 ERA in 2019.
The next year, in a pandemic-shortened season, Kimbrel lost the closer role as he worked through mechanical issues. His scoreless performance in the month of September hinted at an impending comeback. But it wasn’t certain until he opened this season in dominant fashion.
Kimbrel has announced his return to the top tier of MLB closers with a 0.57 ERA entering the All-Star break. He hasn’t allowed an earned run since mid-May.
The Hall of Fame questions are cropping up again.
“It kind of makes me uncomfortable, a little bit, because I know I still have a long career and a lot to do,” Kimbrel said. “Do I understand that I’m putting myself in a position to do that? Yeah, absolutely. But personally, feel like I have a lot more to do. And to see that thrown around so easy - that’s a very serious thing and a very high accomplishment, and for me, it’s thrown around too easy.”
For Liam Hendriks, Kimbrel’s friend and South Side counterpart, the topic is much easier stomach. He didn’t even need to hear the end of the question about Kimbrel’s Hall of Fame bid to answer.
“I think he is, 100 percent,” Hendriks said. “Not even close.”
Then Hendriks started doing the math on how far away an induction might be. With a smile, he gave Kimbrel another decade before retirement.
“He’s dominated for how long now?” Hendriks said. “Those guys don’t come around (often). … Not only with the All-Star Games, with the saves, with the ERA, with the strikeouts, with everything like that, but also those guys don’t come around with what he’s been to a clubhouse and the personality he brings.
“That’s the biggest attribute that I always look for. It’s not necessarily on the field stuff, but it’s the clubhouse experience, what you bring to the field because you could be a great player, but if you’re a huge dick it doesn’t matter.”
Kimbrel’s uptick in velocity the last couple seasons supports his and Hendriks' conviction that the eight-time All-Star still has a long career ahead of him. As long as they're right – no matter how soon the closer's Cubs tenure ends – it’ll be a while before Kimbrel accepts the title of “future Hall of Famer.”
“I know it’s an honor to have that said, but at the end of the day I still have to go out and do it,” Kimbrel said. “That’s something that’s said about somebody when they’re done playing, not while they’re playing.”