When the news broke that the Cubs had signed Craig Kimbrel, the happiest person in the world wasn't in Chicago or even affiliated with professional baseball.
It was Kimbrel's friend — a guy that works on the family property back in Alabama who can now rest easy knowing that he doesn't have to stand in the box for any more of Kimbrel's bullpens.
Kimbrel has spent much of this year working out at Montverde Academy in Florida — where Francisco Lindor attended — and throwing to a high school catcher there, but he did spend some time at home in Alabama, too, throwing into a net at his barn.
"One of my close friends and a guy that we have help us do a lot of work at our place — I was just throwing into the net one day and he was walking by and I was like, 'Hey man, you wanna stand in?'" Kimbrel said. "And he was like, 'Sure!' So I threw a couple pitches with him and the next day, he got a piece of plywood and carved out a batter and the batter was there instead.
"Not everybody likes standing in, I guess," Kimbrel chuckled.
It's hard to blame the friend, as Kimbrel has some of the nastiest stuff in baseball — including a fastball that has averaged 97.8 mph throughout his big-league career.
However, other than those few pitches, Kimbrel hasn't spent much time facing hitters over the past few months. He last appeared in a game on Oct. 27, during the Boston Red Sox run to a World Series championship.
While the rest of baseball was showing up in Arizona and Florida for spring training around Valentine's Day, Kimbrel was left to work out on his own as his free agency freeze continued. That carried into the first week of June here, though Kimbrel said he has done what he can to stay ready, including training in Florida and played as much long toss and thrown as many bullpens as he ever has.
In fact, he actually felt like he was working out too hard.
"I definitely feel great right now," he said. "I'm pretty strong — I had to back off my workouts because I was becoming a football player, in a sense. I had to back off a little bit. But I am healthy, I feel great, I'm ready to get out there and face hitters.
"It's tough to simulate that when it's the unknown — not knowing if I was gonna get a phone call the next day and be shipped out or someone was gonna want to come down and watch me throw the next day. And mentally, I'm not throwing my bullpens at 98 mph — at least I don't think I am."
Kimbrel understands he will have more soreness as his body and arm gets used to dialing it up in front of hitters and game-like situations.
The Cubs officially optioned Kimbrel to Triple-A Iowa Friday, and they'll have the closer throw a bullpen Saturday before shipping him out to Arizona to go through a condensed spring training.
The initial plan is the Cubs will have Kimbrel throw a few bullpens and face some live hitters in Arizona and then if all goes well, head out on a rehab assignment in the minor leagues (likely at Iowa).
"We're not gonna rush it," Theo Epstein said. "It's gonna be tempting to get him here as soon as possible, but we're trying to plan this thing the right way so that he could be in a position to succeed not just immediately but in October. That's gonna be our guiding principle as we go."
The general line of thought around the Cubs is it will take at least three weeks for all that to play out, which would put Kimbrel in the big-league bullpen right around the end of the month.
But nothing is set in stone. Kimbrel is 31 now with 694.1 professional innings and nine big-league seasons under his belt. So he understands what it takes to get his arm ready for game action, but he's also not used to going a full seven months without facing live hitters and rejoining a team halfway through a season.
The Cubs have their sights set firmly on another World Series run and they won't sacrifice that big-picture goal for a short-term fix. Plus, Kimbrel is under contract for at least two seasons after 2019, so it does no good for either side if they rush him and risk any sort of injury just so he can join the back end of the bullpen sooner than expected.
"We sat down and put a gameplan together — something to work off of," Kimbrel said. "But at the end of the day, it's based off how I recover, how I get ready. This isn't about getting back on the field as fast as I can. This is about being the best that I can be in October and down the stretch and doing what I came here to do for this team."