Early Saturday, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic dropped a report that should be music to the ears of Cubs fans: the team is “showing interest” in free agent closer Craig Kimbrel. The report is a complete 180 from the Cubs’ offseason stance, where budget issues kept them from making a big splash in the free agent market.
As time goes on, circumstances change, which is certainly true for the Cubs on several levels. Between injuries, an inadequate bullpen and finances potentially becoming available, going after Kimbrel now is more realistic than it was in the winter.
Be that as it may, signing Kimbrel isn’t an automatic move. The Cubs aren't alone in their pursuit for him, as a plethora of teams are interested in signing the right-hander, according to a report. Kimbrel would be a good addition to the Cubs, but there are both pros and cons to signing the elite 31-year-old closer. Let’s break it down:
Kimbrel is one of the best closers in MLB history
There’s no doubting that Kimbrel is one of the best closers in MLB history. In nine seasons, he has 333 career saves (No. 14 all-time) and a 1.91 ERA (No. 5 all-time) in 532 2/3 innings. For comparison’s sake, former Yankees closer and Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera had 283 career saves through his ninth season (2003). However, Rivera didn’t become the Yankees closer until 1997 (his third season), while Kimbrel became a full-time closer in 2011 (his second season).
Rivera, who finished his career with 652 saves, was 34 years old in 2004, his 10th MLB season. Kimbrel, on the other hand, turned 31 on May 28. Every pitcher is different, and Rivera pitched until he was 43 years old. Still, the latter’s numbers could be a model for what Kimbrel’s numbers look like by the end of his career.
2019 Cubs' bullpen struggles
At this point, every Cubs fan is likely aware that the team’s bullpen has had its fair share of problems in 2019. Entering Saturday’s game against the Cardinals, Cubs relievers have 11 blown saves in 22 chances, tied for the second-most in baseball behind the Mets, who have 12.
In fairness, the Cubs bullpen posted a 3.52 ERA (No. 5 in MLB) in 92 innings in May. However, seven of their 12 blown saves came between May 6 and May 24, meaning the problem isn’t going away.
Kimbrel seems like a surefire solution to this problem. He converted 42 of 47 save chances with the Red Sox last season, striking out 96 batters in 62 1/3 innings to go along with a 2.74 ERA. Plus, adding Kimbrel would deepen a Cubs bullpen that has had a problem holding leads. This takes us to our next point.
Signing Kimbrel would have positive ripple effects on the entire Cubs' bullpen
With both Brandon Morrow (elbow) and Pedro Strop (hamstring) on the injured list, the Cubs have had to resort to using their No. 3 closer in Steve Cishek. Cishek (130 career saves), Brandon Kintzler (48 career saves) and Brad Brach (33 career saves) have experience closing games, but the Cubs certainly didn’t envision using the three in such a role this season. Heck, even Tyler Chatwood got a save last week.
Can Cishek, Kintzler and Brach close games? Sure, but having to use them in the later innings creates more problems for Cubs manager Joe Maddon. Not only does he have to rely on the three more than he should, but he has a shortage of reliable arms to use in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings of tight games.
If the Cubs signed Kimbrel, Maddon would have five reliable relievers once Strop returns from injury. With how Tyler Chatwood has fared — and assuming Mike Montgomery, Kyle Ryan and Carl Edwards Jr. continue to deliver consistent outings — a weakness could turn into one of the Cubs’ strengths sooner rather than later.
Life isn’t all sunshines and rainbows, though...
The Cubs’ offseason budgetary concerns can’t just be gone with the wind, right? As the free agency periods of Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado leaked into spring training, the Cubs’ stance didn’t change. Cubs owner and chairman Tom Ricketts said the team had no more money to spend.
Consequentially, the only Cubs free agent "splashes” came in the form of Brach, Tony Barnette and Daniel Descalso. The team has received a mixed bag of results from the three and Barnette has yet to pitch an inning with the Cubs due to right shoulder inflammation.
With that being said, how much can the Cubs offer or be willing to offer Kimbrel? His asking price reportedly dropped after the season got underway, but it’s anyone’s guess if even a lowered asking price fits into the Cubs’ budget. He also reportedly doesn’t want a one-year deal.
As Rosenthal noted in his story, the Cubs could have more money to play around with than they anticipated. With Ben Zobrist on the restricted list and presumably not being paid, the Cubs have more financial flexibility than they had in the offseason. This is in addition to the money the team keeps off to the side each year for in-season transactions.
How soon can Kimbrel contribute?
Even if the Cubs can sign Kimbrel, how soon he can contribute is unclear. While he’s likely been training on his own during his extended free agency, Kimbrel hasn’t pitched in an MLB game since Oct. 27, 2018. Yes, this game was full of high-stakes — it was Game 4 of the World Series — but Kimbrel has had a lot of time away from MLB action.
Starting on Monday at 12:01 a.m., teams don’t have to forfeit a compensatory draft pick to sign Kimbrel. So, assuming he signs soon thereafter, the earliest we’d see Kimbrel on a big-league mound is likely sometime this month. The Cubs could use bullpen help sooner rather than later. Just how long can they afford to wait for Kimbrel to join the active roster?
Kimbrel got off to a slow start in the 2018 postseason, allowing five runs in his first 5 1/3 innings (four appearances). He got locked in for an extended time after, throwing 4 1/3 straight scoreless innings before allowing two runs in 1 1/3 innings in the Red Sox 9-6 win over the Dodgers in Game 4 of the World Series.
On the one hand, Kimbrel was tipping his pitches early in the postseason, so his struggles could’ve just been a blip on the radar. Between his long layoff and inefficient postseason, there is some room for pause in pursuing the right-hander.
Overall, the positives outweigh the negatives when it comes to Kimbrel. With how the Cubs bullpen has struggled this season, going all-in on one of the best closers in MLB history should be an easy decision to make.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.