Why Craig Kimbrel is Cubs' bellwether in short season like no closer before him

Why Craig Kimbrel is Cubs' bellwether in short season like no closer before him

Whether we’ll ever arrive at a time during pandemic baseball to let down our guards long enough to dream on the entirety of a 60-game season and playoffs, the Cubs will be hard pressed to let down their guards when it comes to holding leads late with a new-look bullpen and no margin for error in getting it right.

“Definitely each game’s going to be bigger, each lead change is going to be bigger in 60 games,” said veteran closer Craig Kimbrel — whose performance could be the bellwether for the Cubs fortunes like no other closer in any other season ever has.

“There’s going to be no such thing as a losing streak,” Kimbrel said. “If you’re going to want to be in it at the end, you’re going to have to stay consistent and try not to get in a funk.”

Bullpens already are considered the most inherently volatile position areas in baseball in any season. In a 60-gamer?

“It’s extremely important,” said Cubs manager David Ross, one of Kimbrel’s catchers in Atlanta when the right-hander broke into the majors 10 years ago. “Every aspect of this game is going to be highlighted in a 60-game sprint, and that’s definitely going to be a big part of it.”

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Kimbrel, 32, is a seven-time All-Star, who signed a three-year $43 million deal as a free agent early last season and then struggled down the stretch for the Cubs — allowing a career-high nine home runs in just 23 appearances.

He became a Twitter punchline when he gave up a homer to teammate Willson Contreras in a simulated game Tuesday, but Kimbrel said he was just trying to throw strikes and working on things — like the changeup Contreras hit.

The reality is Tuesday meant next to nothing when imagining Kimbrel’s performance once a season were to start July 24.

But last September — when he gave up four homers in three outings that included a 10th-inning loss and blown save in another loss in the span of three days against the Cardinals — is another matter.

If he starts 2020 like he finished 2019, the Cubs’ short season might be finished before it starts.

Will he recover the tick or two off his once upper-90s fastball to once again get away with location mistakes? Will his breaking ball and developing changeup become bigger weapons to make the fastball look more powerful? Will his location be good enough to make either less of an issue?

“I think he’s got a few things still to iron out, just talking to him, for him to feel comfortable,” Ross said. “And he knows some of his keys, he’s not quite there yet. It’s like any other pitcher. His is heightened by who he is, but every pitcher is looking at the data afterwards, looking at the high-speed cameras, seeing where the hand positioning is, comparing it to the success they’ve had in the past and trying to make small adjustments and get the action that they expect on the baseball.”

The theme often repeated by team officials since last year’s struggles was that Kimbrel suffered from not having a normal spring training last year because of the extended free agency that took his competitive debut into June.

Fast-forward to 2020 and … uh-oh.

But Kimbrel said last year’s experience is “definitely helpful” as he navigates the strangest season anybody in the game has experienced.

Any emotional downside associated with this season’s unusual format might come from the lack of fans in the stands and the natural adrenaline high that brings to the ninth inning with a slim lead.

“It’d be a lot nicer if there was [a crowd],” he said. “I’m just going to have to figure out a way to do it.

“I’ve just got to mentally go to a place and physically be ready to go out there and do what I’ve always done.”

The fact is his success is more likely to simply come down to whatever he gets out of that All-Star fastball — whether through location, sheer velocity or what he can make it look like off his other stuff.

“Obviously, when the fastball’s located and at the velocity you want it, things are great,” he said. “But I think with my offspeed pitches, the better I can control those, the better it makes my fastball.

“So I would honestly say controlling the curveball in the zone and keeping it down is only going to make my fastball play better. That’s really my mindset on that.”

He and the Cubs have two weeks to get it right. Because once the season starts so does the playoff chase — with every ninth- and 10th-inning home run as costly as the last time he took the mound for the Cubs when it counted.


How David Ross plans to fix Cubs closer problem with Craig Kimbrel in the shop

How David Ross plans to fix Cubs closer problem with Craig Kimbrel in the shop

One of the unnoticed benefits of Javy Báez’s game-ending single in the 11th inning Sunday against the Pirates was that it eliminated a 12th inning that would have belonged to the struggling Craig Kimbrel.

That was David Ross’ next man out of the bullpen, the Cubs manager said Monday.

Instead, we watched the man who would be — and should be — the closer pitch out of the contrived jam (man on second) that is the start of each extra inning this year, and earn the win.

Or did we?

One day after veteran Jeremy Jeffress needed just nine pitches to beat the Pirates in the best of four impressive bullpen appearances, Rowan Wick earned a four-out save in a 2-0 victory over the Royals on Monday night.

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And just like that, the Cubs unveiled a closer-by-committee scheme, if not a closer controversy.

The way the first eight games looked, it's hard to imagine having enough reliable pitchers for a quorum. much less a bona fide committee, among the 14 pitchers who have occupied roster spots in the Cubs’ pen so far.

But until or unless Kimbrel (four walks, two homers, one wild pitch and four outs so far) gets right again, that’s the plan for closing out close games, Ross said after Monday’s game.

“I think every night will be different,” he said. “Every night we’re trying to find the best matchups and who’s throwing well.”

Jeffress is the one guy in the group who has the track record, the unflappable veteran presence and the cold-blooded performance so far this year that included escaping a pair of bases-loaded jams in addition to Sunday’s 11th-inning work.

Whether Jeffress was considered unavailable Monday because of high-leverage innings both Saturday and Sunday or Ross liked Wick’s 95-mph fastball/curveball mix against the middle of the Royals order, it was last year’s rookie success story on this night.

“It’s going to be a full team effort down there,” Ross said. “I’m not scared to pull the trigger in a lot of areas with a lot of those guys. They’ve done a really good job of answering the bell here lately and we’ll continue to assess on a daily basis.”

For now it has meant eight consecutive scoreless innings the last two nights against two of the worst teams in baseball for a Cubs bullpen that ranked last in the majors in ERA and several other categories.

That’s not what Ross means when he talks about looking for matchups.

But 10 games into 60-game season, that bullpen almost certainly will continue to be assessed on a daily basis top to bottom.

And with its $43 million closer looking like the weakest link since September, the end of any game with a close lead might be the most intriguing thing to watch with this team for as long as this pandemic season might last.


Kris Bryant, Cubs keep winning with health, baseball as 'uneasiness' looms

Kris Bryant, Cubs keep winning with health, baseball as 'uneasiness' looms

The Cubs played the first of four games in four days against the Royals on Monday night.

But it was impossible to miss the COVID-19 cloud looming on the schedule Friday in St. Louis.

“It’s in the back of our minds,” manager David Ross said.

The Cardinals remained quarantined in their Milwaukee hotel Monday as this week’s series in Detroit was postponed and they dealt with a growing number of players and staff testing positive for COVID-19 — up to 13, including seven players.

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The next game on the Cardinals schedule would be Friday against the National League-leading Cubs, although that series remains at least in significant doubt while the Cardinals continue to test daily and contact trace in an effort to determine the extent of the second big coronavirus outbreak in the majors since the season opened.

In fact, the Marlins — who had 18 players test positive over several days last week — were expected to resume their season Tuesday after a weeklong shutdown, leaving the Cards as the latest, biggest threat to MLB’s efforts at staging a two-month season and postseason during a pandemic.

And leaving the Cubs to brace for what might be their highest stress, if not highest risk, part of the season yet

“There is a little bit of uneasiness to it,” third baseman Kris Bryant said.

If anybody has a right to feel uneasy about taking the field against a team that has even one potential carrier of the virus, it’s Bryant and the Cubs — the only team in the league without a player testing positive since the process began more than a month ago.

The Cubs are taking the virus and safety protocols so seriously that Bryant was sidelined for two games because of a stomach bug that seemed nothing like a COVID-19 symptom to him — but that the team’s medical staff determined was worth the extra precaution of isolating him and putting him through extra testing.

All his tests were negative, and he returned Monday to hit a double and home run against the Royals.

“It’s a better-safe-than-sorry kind of mindset,” Ross said.

MLB has stepped up its emphasis on adhering to protocols through memos and other communication with teams over the past week, including upgrading from a suggestion to a mandate that members of traveling parties remain in hotels unless going to the ballpark.

This amid a growing number of reports that Cardinals’ personnel went out in Minneapolis on their first trip.

“As far as more rules, more restrictions, more guidelines, there’s definitely been talk about it," said Ian Happ, the Cubs’ union rep, who doesn’t seem to know what more the Cubs are expected to do.

“From the latest that I’ve seen, the Cubs are exceeding what the current guidelines are and would be well within compliance with that future guidelines or ordinances and restrictions would be.”

That includes a team policy that already restricted players and staff to hotels when not on the road.

“We had a really good discussion with Rossy at the beginning of Summer Camp,” said Happ, who, like Bryant, said the bigger issue raised in discussions among the Cubs was behavior at home.

“Because Chicago’s the best city in the world,” Happ said. “Chicago is the city where you could theoretically do all the things that we’re talking about not being able to do. Everybody was on the same page as far as what was acceptable and what was not acceptable — how important it was for us to stay healthy and the effect that you would have on your teammates, your teammates’ families.”

How a Cardinals team with strong veteran leaders such as Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina — and a front office led by admitted germaphobe John Mozeliak — would be one of first two teams with a significant outbreak the first week of the season makes about as much sense as three-batter minimums for pitchers and baseball without spitting.

But here we are.

“It’s a unique year,” Ross said.

A year with its season at a major crossroads less than two weeks in. And with a Cubs team in the possible coronavirus crossfire after going even more right off the field than it has during an 8-2 start on the field.

“The actions of one guy don’t affect just the team, don’t affect just the city, but they affect the entire league,” Happ said of the Cubs’ approach. “It’s important to remember the gravity of that.”