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.