How David Ross and Jason Heyward helped the Cubs land Craig Kimbrel

How David Ross and Jason Heyward helped the Cubs land Craig Kimbrel

If the Cubs win the World Series this fall, Cubs fans might have David Ross and Jason Heyward to thank for that once again.

Ross won't be carried off the field Rudy-style again and who knows if Heyward will get an opportunity to add to his cache of famous rain delay speeches, but the two former teammates were instrumental in the Cubs adding Craig Kimbrel, who may well be closing out that next World Series.

Kimbrel was introduced to the Cubs and Chicago media Friday at Wrigley Field and when asked how he ended up in the Windy City nearly two-and-a-half months into the 2019 MLB season, Theo Epstein and the 31-year-old closer both credited Ross and Kimbrel also gave a hat-tip to Heyward.

Epstein said he stayed in touch with Kimbrel's agent — David Meter — throughout the season and things really started to get serious between the two sides last Friday, exactly a week before Kimbrel was introduced. With the MLB Draft kicking off Monday, the draft pick compensation and subsequent loss of bonus pool money was no longer attached to Kimbrel, making him a completely unrestricted free agent.

"Craig threw a bullpen and we sent one of our scouts — Joe Nelson — and then our super scout David Ross to go see the workout, actually," Epstein said. "It's a funny story, but Rossy actually caught Craig's first pitch he ever threw in the big leagues and then he's there, watching him throw a bullpen, getting ready to sign as a free agent."

The bullpen obviously went well and Epstein said it was a "unique opportunity" for the Cubs to add a possible future Hall of Fame closer to the team midseason without giving up any prospects. 

"We were able to go out and get the individual I think could help us maybe more than anyone else in baseball, given the makeup of this team and the aspirations we have," Epstein said.

From there, everything came together really quickly, which might not have happened without the insight from Ross and Heyward.

"I actually talked to quite a few guys," Kimbrel said. "Ross came down and watched me throw my bullpen. He filled me in on a lot — he's spent a lot of time around this group of guys and we spent a lot of time together, as well. Jason reached out — a number of guys reached out — to let me know, 'Hey, if there's anything you need, anything you want to know, we're here to help you.'

"When Jason reached out to me, he wrote me a long text and said he wanted me here and this and that. I replied to him and said all I needed to know was where I should live and what number am I gonna wear? He enjoyed that. That night, it came out that we were gonna be coming here. I'm very excited."

Kimbrel joked that Ross helped scare him into doing the unconventional winged arm dangle on the mound (but then later explained how he just evolved into that look when he had biceps tendinitis and could no longer deal with the pain of having his arm behind his back while peering in for the sign from the catcher). 

Kimbrel and Ross played together on the Braves for three seasons — the first three years Kimbrel was in the big leagues. Back during the reliever's debut season of 2010, Ross was a 33-year-old who had yet to become Jon Lester's personal catcher or a fan favorite in Chicago or a Dancing with the Stars contestant or a member of the Cubs front office.

Ultimately, free agency comes down to money and the dollars — and years — were apparently there to Kimbrel's liking on the Cubs' offer. But the rapport with Ross certainly helped fill in the blanks and quell any lingering concerns Kimbrel might have.

"He did fill me in on the culture of this ballclub," Kimbrel said. "It's the Chicago Cubs — he didn't have to tell me all that much about the culture of this place and what is expected here. He filled me in on the clubhouse. I think if anything, it's how family-oriented this place is, how much they'll do anything for the families. 

"That really resonated with me, because it's the most important thing. I'm a husband and I'm a father and I'm a baseball player and to understand that this place is gonna make that as easy a transition as possible is definitely gonna play a part."

Kyle Ryan's emergence is coming at exactly the right time for Cubs


Kyle Ryan's emergence is coming at exactly the right time for Cubs

With the MLB trade deadline two weeks away, bullpen help figures to be on the Cubs' wish list.

But thanks in part to Kyle Ryan's emergence, the Cubs don't absolutely need that reliever to be left-handed (though it would probably be ideal).

The Cubs began the week with three southpaws in their bullpen, but at some point this weekend, Ryan may be the lone lefty remaining. Mike Montgomery was traded to the Royals late Monday night and with Carl Edwards Jr. progressing in his rehab (he threw again Tuesday), he might take Randy Rosario's spot in a couple days. 

The Cubs like Edwards against lefties and they also feel confident in Pedro Strop against either handed hitter when he's on. But Ryan has worked his way into Joe Maddon's Circle of Trust and is currently the only lefty residing there.

That's not to say the Cubs don't need another reliable southpaw in the 'pen, but Ryan looks like he's going to get some big outs for this team down the stretch.

"He's done a great job for us since he's been here," Jon Lester said of Ryan last month. "I don't think he gets enough credit for what he's been able to do."

Ryan impressed the Cubs with his work as a multi-inning reliever in Triple-A last season and turned heads again in camp this spring. Still, Rosario made the Opening Day roster over him, though Ryan got called up on the team's season-opening road trip and made his first appearance on April 6.

Since then, he's been a mainstay while Montgomery battled injury and ineffectiveness, Rosario and Tim Collins have bounced between Triple-A Iowa and Chicago and veteran Xavier Cedeno's time off the injured list was short-lived.

Ryan looked to be finding his way throughout his first month in the bullpen, but after his infamous "freeze" moment against the Marlins, he endured some struggles (7 runs allowed on 12 hits in 7 innings from May 8 through June 1).

He's righted the ship since then, permitting only 1 run over his last 17 appearances (14 innings) and lowering his season ERA to 3.21 to go along with a 1.31 WHIP and 33 strikeouts in 33.2 innings.

A big part of that recent success can be tied to Ryan's increased improvement against left-handed hitters. 

Lefties hit .344 with a .405 on-base percentage off Ryan through June 5. But since then, Ryan has surrendered only 3 hits — all singles — and zero walks to the 19 left-handed hitters he's faced (.158 AVG).

He credits part of that turnaround to working on a changeup, which he thinks has helped lock in the "feel" of all his other pitches as well as his mechanics. 

As he works to add a new pitch to his repertoire, Ryan has leaned on Cubs bullpen coach Lester Strode and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy for assistance, while also picking the brains of veterans like Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Brad Brach who have all thrown changeups for quite a while.

But even with all that work, he still hasn't resorted to using the changeup much in games. The pitch is so foreign that it's still being picked up as a sinker, including on the Wrigley Field video board Sunday when he threw one in his inning of work.

"Eventually, I'm gonna find the changeup and it's gonna be a comfortable, confident pitch," Ryan said. "But I do think it's gotten me behind all the rest of my pitches and it's maybe a little bit better feel for everything. It's gonna stay where it is for a while. I'm gonna keep trying."

Ryan said one of the things he likes about the changeup is that it can eventually be a nice weapon because it "goes in the opposite direction" of all his other pitches.

We'll see if the new pitch can ever become a factor for the 27-year-old. But if it's helped lock in his other pitches, that's great news for the Cubs, especially as they look to fortify their bullpen this month.

Cubs Talk Podcast: The Yu Darvish 1st Wrigley win and post-ASG hot start podcast


Cubs Talk Podcast: The Yu Darvish 1st Wrigley win and post-ASG hot start podcast

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki discuss Yu Darvish's 1st win at Wrigley, Cole Hamel's status, and Kris Bryant playing better than he did in his MVP season.

01:00     Darvish picking up 1st win at Wrigley

03:30     Cole Hamels injury update

05:00     Starting rotation after the All-Star break

06:00     Cubs defense looking sharp

07:30     How the Cubs will approach the weekend and the expected heat

09:30     Kris Bryant playing above his MVP level

12:00     How the NL Central stacks up

14:00     Upcoming road trip to San Francisco, Milwaukee and Saint Louis

16:00     Addition to Martin Maldonado

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast


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