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What signing Craig Kimbrel would mean for the 2019 Cubs

What signing Craig Kimbrel would mean for the 2019 Cubs

ST. LOUIS — Even if Craig Kimbrel was in the Cubs bullpen this weekend in St. Louis, the result probably would've been the same. 

The Cubs weren't swept out of Busch Stadium because of bullpen meltdowns and, in fact, they didn't even hold a lead after the third inning at any point in the three games.

Maybe Kimbrel would've been able to get Friday night's game to the 11th inning with his incredible ability to miss bats, but otherwise, it would not have changed the equation much.

Which is to say — Kimbrel isn't any sort of savior for this Cubs team even if Theo Epstein's front office went out and signed the elite closer early this week, now that there are no draft pick or bonus pool money penalties to signing the 31-year-old right-hander as of 12:01 a.m. Monday morning. 

Kimbrel can't help stop the current week-long stretch where the Cubs offense has not driven in a runner from scoring position. He also wouldn't magically help cure all the bullpen woes, even though his mere presence would surely help.

The point is — we're still talking about a guy that might pitch 45-50 innings maximum this season, even in a best-case scenario. And though the Cubs are reportedly one of the teams in on Kimbrel, they'll be far from the only bidder for his services as spring fades into summer.

Joe Maddon said before Sunday's game he hasn't been involved in any discussions with Epstein or GM Jed Hoyer or any other Cubs executive about Kimbrel. But this isn't a situation where a manager would have to be too involved — what skipper would not want to add a closer of Kimbrel's caliber to their roster right now?

Instead, Maddon's just focusing on who he has on the roster, which is all he can do.

"Right now, the Christmas gift is gonna be Pedro Strop very soon," Maddon said of the veteran Cubs reliever who threw another rehab outing Sunday in Triple-A Iowa and will likely rejoin the bullpen early this week in Chicago. "The moment we get Stroppy back, that lengthens the whole bullpen again. 

"Just let it play out, man. I don't worry about stuff like that. I like the group that we have when Pedro comes back — [Steve] Cishek fills a different role, they all become different in a good way. You just can become thicker in the bullpen. Once Pedro's arrived, I think you'll see a difference with that. And then regarding any free agents or whatever, that's not up to me — it's up to the front office."

All it would cost to sign Kimbrel now is money, which has been a big point of contention around this Cubs team since early November. Once the Cubs picked up Cole Hamels' $20 million option, the budget took center stage and Epstein's front office had to get creative to supplement a roster that won 95 games a season ago but couldn't even get past the National League Wild-Card Game.

So even though the Cubs would no longer have to give up a draft pick or amateur spending money, will they have enough funds to afford a contract Kimbrel is seeking? 

That remains to be seen, but the Cubs always set some money aside for in-season moves, planning to add to the payroll to address the team's biggest needs (like taking on portions of the contracts of Cole Hamels, Daniel Murphy and Brandon Kintzler last July/August).

From a fan's perspective, it's easy to see why Kimbrel is getting all the attention. 

The slumping offense might be the focal point right now, but that'll even out eventually (maybe even soon). However, the bullpen is a different story — it was the clear weakness of the team over the winter and more than 1/3 of the way through the season, it's still the clear weakness of a squad that spent most of May in first place.

Nowadays, everybody wants to draw comparisons to any Cubs team to the 2016 squad, which is only natural. The potential upside of this 2019 team getting Kimbrel is at least as high as that of Aroldis Chapman in 2016.

Three seasons ago, Epstein and Co. felt they were a dominant closer away from being a true World Series contender and they were right. But you could make the case the 2019 Cubs need a back end reliever even more than that '16 team.

Remember, before the Cubs traded for Chapman in July 2016, they had already had a stable closer who was having a fantastic season — Hector Rondon was 18-for-22 in save chances with a 1.95 ERA and 0.73 WHIP before Chapman joined the club.

That's not to say Chapman wasn't an upgrade over Rondon, but back then, the Cubs bullpen was already solid and they simply went out and fortified it even more, particularly with an arm that profiled better in October.

But this 2019 team doesn't even have closer stability (they haven't since Brandon Morrow first hit the injured list last July) and the bullpen is not a strength of this team. In fact, the relief corps has actually been holding this team back.

The Cubs blew 50 percent of their first save chances (11-of-22) and ranked second in Major League Baseball in blown saves entering June (behind only the Mets, with 12 blown saves). 

Kimbrel could not only be an asset to help this team come October, but he could be a huge boon for the final few months of the regular season, addressing the Cubs' biggest need in the biggest way possible.

That's huge in an NL Central where all five teams wake up Monday morning within 6.5 games of first place (every other division in baseball has at least one team more than 10 games back).

No arm projected to be available this summer can carry the type of impact Kimbrel can. He's arguably the best closer in the game right now and he's clearly the best closer available at the moment. That's not to say there's any sort of guarantee he'll be lights out for the second half of the 2019 MLB season, but the ceiling and potential are undeniable.

Plus, Kimbrel's impact on the Cubs would be more than just one inning a night. If Maddon has Kimbrel to turn to for the ninth inning, that means Strop and Cishek and Brad Brach and Brandon Kintzler are available for the seventh and eighth innings. And that leaves Carl Edwards Jr. as a potential sixth inning option and then lefty Kyle Ryan can be popped whenever the Cubs need him, plus long relief options in Mike Montgomery and Tyler Chatwood.

Suddenly, that bullpen isn't so scary-looking, even for the most pessimistic fan. And that's not including any contribution from Brandon Morrow, whose short-term future is unknown after experiencing a setback in late-April in his recovery from an arm injury.

Kimbrel still wants a multi-year deal, according to reports, but even that isn't that scary for the Cubs. They're going to have to almost completely rebuild their bullpen this winter anyways and locking down Kimbrel now for 2020 (and beyond?) would only help cross an item off the winter checklist, even if it also decreases the organization's payroll flexibility. (Chatwood, Edwards and Montgomery are the only Cubs relievers currently under contract for next season, though the Cubs have team options on Brach and Tony Barnette.)

However, there's a caveat to even the dream scenario for Cubs fans (signing Kimbrel early this week) — he wouldn't be available out of the big-league right away. He has not thrown in a competitive game since the World Series last October and would need to simulate a sort of abbreviated spring training in the minor leagues on any team he signs with.

How long might it take for Kimbrel to get up to speed and join a big-league bullpen? Even the most optimistic scenario would put the timeline somewhere around three weeks at a minimum. So we might not see him pitching in the majors until early July, even if he signs somewhere Monday.

So no, Kimbrel wouldn't singlehandedly fill a role of "savior" for the 2019 Cubs. But if the money's right and Epstein is given the green light from the business department to add that kind of contract to the payroll, signing the closer would be a no-brainer upgrade for a team with World Series aspirations.

Jon Lester on Cubs-Cards series amid COVID-19 news: 'I don't see that happening'

Jon Lester on Cubs-Cards series amid COVID-19 news: 'I don't see that happening'

At least the Cubs got to try out that new extra-inning rule. They even got five innings of scoreless baseball from their much-maligned bullpen before the weekend was done.

But where does the hottest-starting team in the National League go next?

Nobody could be sure Sunday as worsening COVID-19 news swirled around the Cardinals during the Cubs’ extra-inning victory over the Pirates.

Various reports suggested as many as four more Cardinals players and staff tested positive for the coronavirus Saturday night, in addition to the four confirmed cases from earlier in the week. That led to another round of testing Sunday to confirm the results of the potentially positive cases — all playing out five days before the Cubs are scheduled to open a three-game series in St. Louis.

“I would imagine that we’re probably not playing those games this weekend. But I can’t fully speak to that,” veteran pitcher Jon Lester said.” That’s just my opinion. Maybe there’s a way where we flip the schedule around where we’re playing somebody else. I think guys right now just want to keep playing.

“It sucks that we’re dealing with this, but it’s the nature of the beast right now. The league I’m sure will alter the plans going forward. If we’re in St. Louis on Friday, we’re in St. Louis on Friday. We’ll figure it out, and we’ll try to beat the Cardinals and move on to the next day. But right now, as of today, I don’t see that happening.”

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The Cardinals already have had four days of games postponed — the second team to deal with an outbreak after the Marlins had 18 players test positive in the days following their opener in Philadelphia. The Marlins haven’t played in a week. Their outbreak prompted MLB to juggle the schedules of other teams impacted by the Marlins shutdown to allow them to keep playing during the week. 

If the Cardinals news doesn’t improve fast, it could mean a much tougher decision for commissioner Rob Manfred, who in recent days had pledged to persist with the season, even if it meant teams would finish with different numbers of games played.

Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said on Saturday his conversations with MLB and officials from other teams in recent days offered no sense of clarity on the viability of play during the first-week crisis — even as MLB mandated safety compliance officers for each team and stressed greater adherence to protocols.

“I don’t think there’s any consensus,” Hoyer said. “Our experience so far has been positive, and based on what I have viewed this is absolutely survivable. But our experience hasn’t been the rule.”

RELATED: Why no Cubs have expressed intent to opt out amid MLB COVID-19 outbreaks

The Cubs are the only team in the league that hasn’t had a player test positive since intake testing began more than a month ago — though star third baseman Kris Bryant has self-quarantined since reporting a stomachache to team officials Saturday. He has continued to test negative, was said to feel better Sunday, and might be cleared to play Monday or Tuesday depending on the results and timing of two more tests.

Whether the 7-2 Cubs and everyone else have a season to keep playing by the time he were to return — much less a Cubs-Cardinals series to play Friday — remains in flux.

Depending on how widespread the Cardinals’ outbreak becomes, the Cubs might already have faced a higher risk series in their sweep of the Pirates — who faced the Cardinals five days before taking the field at Wrigley.

“Those are the kinds of things you start thinking about during this,” Hoyer said. “You’d be crazy not to start thinking about the number of days and making sure that [the Cardinals’] outbreak is under control. I think you have a right to have those concerns and ask those questions.

“That’s probably the area that I’m focused on right now, is that as they test, the positives have to stop before we can really have a sense of what we’re dealing with.”

Until then, the team that has looked impressive against the Brewers, Reds and Pirates — and even better in containing the virus within its bubble — could be on the brink of having all its best laid plans and early performance wiped out by teams outside their bubble and factors beyond their control.

“You don’t want to see something go down just because of, I guess, a couple teams,” said Kyle Schwarber, who drove in his sixth run Sunday, threw out a runner at the plate in the 10th and has an .851 OPS so far. “Hopefully, this is something quick [with the Cards]. Hopefully, there’s able to be a fix and they’re able to keep the season going.

“It would be a disappointment just because you see the group in here, what we’ve been doing,” he added. “We’ve been responsible in everything that we’re trying to do because we know we’re part of something greater here.”

That’s about doing their part to make sure a two-month season and playoffs can be completed during a global pandemic as much as it is about doing what they can to still be one of the teams playing at that point.

The Cubs say all they can do now is show up Monday for their game against the Royals until or unless they hear otherwise.

“You can’t worry about Team ‘X’ testing positive three or four or 10, 11 times,” Lester said. “We have to worry about what’s in front of us.

“And if the commissioner comes and says we’re done, then we’re done. And if he says play on, then we play on.”

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How the Cubs bullpen became the surprise hero in series finale vs. Pirates

How the Cubs bullpen became the surprise hero in series finale vs. Pirates

Cubs reliver Jeremy Jeffress clapped in triumph. Shortstop Javier Baez had just fielded a sharp ground ball and thrown a dart to third baseman David Bote to tag out the lead runner.

The new extra innings rule had put Jeffress under pressure as soon as he stepped on the mound, but that out was like a relief valve.

“That’s exactly how you do it,” Bote said. “The pitchers made good pitches, kept them off balance.”

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In the Cubs’ 2-1 win over the Pirates on Sunday, the Chicago bullpen held Pittsburg scoreless through five innings, including two extras. This was the same bullpen that entered play Sunday with an MLB-worst 9.75 ERA. But in the series finale, Jeffress, Ryan Tepera and Dan Winkler all performed under pressure, buying the Cubs time until Baez’s walk-off single in the 11th inning.

With less than a week until the active roster is cut to 28 players, the Cubs bullpen is taking shape.

“That’s a lot of innings that we asked out of our bullpen tonight,” Cubs manager David Ross said, “and they did a really good job.”

The bullpen’s shutout began with Casey Sadler, who pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings. But with two outs in the eighth inning, Sadler walked Jose Osuna, and runners stood on first and second with cleanup hitter Colin Moran up next.

Ross turned to Dan Winkler, who only lasted a third of an inning in his first appearance this season. A week ago, he walked two and gave up an RBI single in the Cubs’ narrow win at Cincinnati. He redeemed himself Sunday.

Winkler threw three cutters in a row to Moran, and he whiffed on all of them. Winkler came back out the next inning and preserved the 1-1 tie, setting the Cubs up for their first extra-inning game of the season.

“Real big outing tonight,” Ross said. “Thought he looked sharp. Some nice cutters in there deep. Pitching though some moments was poised. Things get a little bit tenser as the game moves on in a 1-1 game, first real clincher that I think I’ve had coming down the stretch. … When you’ve got somebody out there that you feel like’s in control of the ball game, it’s just a nice feeling as a manager.”

For this season, in an attempt to avoid 15-inning games in a jam-packed schedule, Major League Baseball has adopted the international tiebreaker rule.

The hitting team starts every half inning after the ninth (or the seventh during double headers) with a runner on second. For the Cubs, that meant a bullpen that has struggled in pressure situations this year had to start each extra inning under pressure.

“For guys to step up right there and make pitches, I can only imagine what that feels like,” said starting pitcher Jon Lester, who allowed just one run in six innings. “You haven’t even thrown a pitch yet and you’ve got a guy on second base.”

With the game on the line, Ross put the ball in Tepera and Jeffress’ hands.

Craig Kimbrel, who has traditionally been the Cubs’ closer, is working through mechanical issues. On Saturday, Ross declined to say whether Kimbrel would remain the Cubs closer after a pair of disappointing outings. Kimbrel was notably absent from late innings on Sunday.

Tepera and Jeffress delivered.

“A lot of people don’t know Tep got up (in the bullpen) multiple times today,” Ross said. “So, for him to come in and have that nice outing … our guys were definitely engaged, locked in.”

Josh Bell pinch hit to lead off the 10th inning and hit a hard ground ball off Tepera into left field. Pirates baserunner Jacob Stallings, who started the inning on second, rounded third base and sprinted home. But Schwarber’s throw beat him there. Cubs catcher Willson Contreras held onto the ball through the collision at the plate.

Extra-innings threat eliminated. Tepera retired the next two batters in order.

Then it was Jeffress’ turn. Three up, three down.

 

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