Atlanta Braves

An underrated factor that brought Craig Kimbrel to Chicago

An underrated factor that brought Craig Kimbrel to Chicago

At the end of the day, money makes the baseball world go round and the dollars and years were there to Craig Kimbrel's liking on the Cubs' offer.

But you can't discount the allure of playing at Wrigley Field in front of this fanbase and the kind of impact it can have on a player who's already performed on the highest stage the game has to offer.

Kimbrel said he had conversations with other MLB teams throughout the free agency process, but things moved quickly last week when the Cubs stepped up to the table because of the fit from both sides.

"One thing that's important to me as well is being able to play in front of a fanbase that is as passionate about this game as I am," Kimbrel said in his introductory press conference Friday morning. "I did get to experience that in Boston and it'd be hard to leave that kind of passion each and every night — especially in the role that I am [as closer].

"I'm a very adrenaline-based player. And knowing that each and every night, those seats are gonna be full, it definitely played a huge part in the decision."

It would be easy to just write a statement like that off and chalk it up as fan service, but Kimbrel offered that up unprompted and it makes a lot of sense. 

The last time he played competitive baseball, he was part of a World Series-winning Red Sox team that got to celebrate with a parade in front of one of the most passionate fanbases in all of American sports. And if you're going to leave Fenway Park, what better stadium to call your home park than Wrigley Field — another iconic place to play?

Kimbrel played with Jason Heyward for five years in Atlanta and the two came up through the Braves system together. The rapport with Heyward and David Ross played a big role in Kimbrel signing with the Cubs, as it allowed him to get a lay of the land on the non-money topics — how the Cubs take care of players' families, what it's like to play for this organization, the clubhouse vibe...and what it's like to play in front of these fans at Wrigley Field.

As Kimbrel and his camp were discussing terms with Theo Epstein and the Cubs, Heyward sent his former teammate a long text.

"It's an awesome thing because you know it's his decision solely — he and his family," Heyward said. "I respected that space — I just let him know a little bit about what's going on here and what it would be like and told him he deserved to play for a place like this. 

"... In that one text, I told him — a place like this, he'll see. I just told him about the winning culture, what we're trying to get done — family, ownership, front office, the city to play for."

Once upon a time, Heyward was also a coveted free agent weighing his options and the best fit for the next stage of his playing career. When he was talking with the Cubs, he reached out to Ross and fellow former teammate Eric Hinske (who was on the Cubs coaching staff at the time) and used them as resources to see what things were really like with the team. 

Heyward believes the familiarity Kimbrel has with some of the guys already on the Cubs will only make it easier to gel and the veteran outfielder is looking forward to the team's new closer feeding off the vibe in the ballpark.

Those around baseball have long said the final three outs are the toughest to get in a game. The ninth inning in a close contest carries all kinds of pressure with it and a ballpark jam-packed with 40,000-plus screaming fans only intensifies that. For the Cubs to acquire a closer that not only thrives on that type of environment, but actually believes he NEEDS that energy to be successful, that's an ideal fit.

Joe Maddon spent nearly a decade managing in the AL East, so he knows all about the type of environment Kimbrel is coming from at Fenway and what he's about to step into here at Wrigley in a few weeks.

"The fact that he's thrived there — back to the mind once stretched theory — it's no different," Maddon said. "Having been successful there, he knows he can be successful anywhere. ... His answer did not surprise me — the adrenaline gig.

"Think about it: How many times have we talked about it in the past where you put a closer in the game when it's not a close situation and he does not perform well? It's all based on adrenaline, man. [The top closers are] good, plus they're adrenaline junkies. They really need that fix to get them over the top with their stuff.

"Love it. Absolutely love it. And then there's guys that just can't deal with that. The fact that he's dealt with it where he's dealt with it and the fact that he seeks it, I think is outstanding."

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Braves

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USA TODAY

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Braves

The National League looks as strong as ever, with as many as 12 of the 15 teams planning to contend in 2019.

The Cubs had a quiet winter, transactionally speaking, but almost every other team in the NL bolster their roster this offseason. 

But expectations haven't changed at the corner of Clark and Addison. After a disappointing finish to 2018, Kris Bryant and Co. once again have their sights set on another World Series.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Atlanta Braves

2018 record: 90-72, 1st in NL East

Offseason additions: Josh Donaldson, Brian McCann

Offseason departures: Brad Brach, Kurt Suzuki, Lucas Duda, Rene Rivera, Ryan Flaherty, Brandon McCarthy, Anibal Sanchez, Peter Moylan

X-factor: Josh Donaldson

Anytime you're the biggest offseason addition, there's already a target on your back and expectations that come with the territory. That's especially true of Donaldson.

He's the only big addition to a team that surprised the baseball world by claiming the division a year ago before losing out to the Dodgers in the in the NLDS. Donaldson is also a former MVP who signed for only a 1-year deal as he looks to remake his market and cash in again next winter.

Donaldson turned 33 in December and is coming off a year in which he played just 52 games due to lingering calf issues. He managed only 113 games played in 2017, but still hit 33 bombs with a .944 OPS that season.

This is a player who finished in the Top 10 in AL MVP voting four years in a row from 2013-16 with the Oakland A's and Toronto Blue Jays, slashing .284/.375/.518 (.893 OPS) with an average of 33 homers, 103 RBI, 106 runs scored and 84 walks per year. He also racked up 31.3 WAR in that span while playing elite defense at third base.

If that's the type of player Donaldson will be in 2019, the Braves have created a fantastic situation for themselves, adding another legitimate, top-notch bat to a lineup that already includes veterans Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis plus budding stars Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies. 

If Donaldson doesn't put up that type of production whether due to injuries or anything else, the Braves are lucky they only have him under contract for one season. But it would certainly have a huge impact on that one season, when the rest of the division is also much-improved this winter.

Projected lineup

1. Ender Inciarte - CF
2. Josh Donaldson - 3B
3. Freddie Freeman - 1B
4. Ronald Acuna Jr. - LF
5. Nick Markakis - RF
6. Ozzie Albies - 2B
7. Brian McCann - C
8. Dansy Swanson - SS

Projected rotation

1. Julio Teheran
2. Kevin Gausman
3. Sean Newcomb
4. Touki Toussaint
5. Mike Foltynewicz*

Outlook

Foltynewicz is the Braves' ace, but he's not expected to be ready for Opening Day as he's currently nursing elbow tightness. Atlanta won't need a fifth starter for a while anyways due to the off-days early on in the schedule. Assuming Foltynewicz is able to avoid serious injury and return mid-April, the Braves will be in good shape. He finished 8th in NL Cy Young voting last year, going 13-10 with a 2.85 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 202 strikeouts in 183 innings.

If he is forced to miss more time or unable to pitch at the top of his game due to the injury, the Braves could be in trouble. They have arguably the best stable of pitching prospects in the game, but none are proven in the big leagues. Instead, the rest of the rotation consists of Teheran, Newcomb and Gausman — a trio of arms who are on the right side of 30 and have flashed star potential but their careers are mostly marked by inconsistency. Toussaint, 22, made his MLB debut last year and only has 29 big-league innings under his belt.

All those other young pitchers are coming (led by Mike Soroka and Ian Anderson), but it's hard to predict what kind of success they'll have in The Show. Meanwhile, the Braves have expectations to contend in 2019 in a division that boasts three other teams with similar thoughts about how their season should go.

The lineup should be fantastic once again, regardless of what Donaldson provides. Freeman is a bonafide MVP candidate and Acuna may well join that conversation, too, at a ripe old age of 21 years old. The reigning NL Rookie of the Year hit .293 with a .917 OPS, 26 homers and 16 stolen bases in just 111 games last season as a 20-year-old. Over a full campaign, those numbers extrapolate out to 38 homers and 23 stolen bases. Maybe a sophomore slump is coming, but this is a ridiculously talented young player.

Around the rest of the lineup, the Braves hope young second baseman Albies is more like the player he flashed in the first half (.281/.318/.516, 20 homers) than the guy that faded in the second half (.226/.282/.342, 4 homers). But he just turned 22 in January, so he has a lot of development left to do.

Former No. 1 overall pick Swanson is a defensive whiz at shortstop, but hasn't hit at all over the course of his big-league career (.243/.314/.369 career slash). Right now, the Braves don't have room for 25-year-old Johan Carmago in their everyday lineup despite the fact he hit .295 with an .844 OPS after the All-Star Break last year and is a switch-hitter who can play just about anywhere. But he represents depth to give guys a breather or step in if anybody goes down to injury.

Markakis, a 35-year-old veteran, had one of the best years of his career last season and looked to be out the door in free agency before signing a 1-year, $6 million deal in late January. Adding McCann to pair with Tyler Flowers behind the plate gives the Braves another valuable veteran voice in the clubhouse.

The Achilles' heel of this team could be the bullpen. The Braves front office didn't touch the position group this winter and are watching as one of their top relievers (A.J. Minter) is already sidelined due to a shoulder injury suffered in a car accident earlier this winter.

Former Cub Arodys Vizcaino has come into his own as closer, but the rest of the bullpen is one big question mark.

This is a very talented team and has an incredibly bright future, but they may experience too many growing pains in 2019 to hang with the Phillies and Nationals.

Prediction: 3rd in NL East, just out of Wild-Card contention

All 2019 previews & predictions

San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
Miami Marlins
New York Mets
Atlanta Braves
Philadelphia Phillies
Washington Nationals
Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates
Milwaukee Brewers
St. Louis Cardinals

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Cubs pitcher Brad Brach adds more fuel to baseball's free-agency conspiracy theory

Cubs pitcher Brad Brach adds more fuel to baseball's free-agency conspiracy theory

MESA, Ariz. — Brad Brach wouldn't go so far as to use the word "collusion," but he had some very interesting comments about the current state of Major League Baseball's free agency process.

The veteran reliever signed a one-year deal with the Cubs last month with an option for a second season. It was his first foray into free agency and his experience was a microcosm of what's wrong with the system right now from the players' perspective.

"It was stressful and it kinda dragged on forever," Brach said Friday morning at Cubs camp. "You hear about interest in the first week and then you don't get offers until late December, January and you're just kinda wondering what's going on. Teams say they like you, but they're not making you any offers. Then you finally get offers and 6 or 7 teams are giving you the same offer.

"It's just a weird process and nobody really knows what's going on right now. Obviously I would've liked the experience to have been a little better. I'm just glad to be here now and glad it's over with for at least this year and hope to pitch well enough to be here again next year."

Brach may not be a household name to casual baseball fans, but he was one of the top bullpen arms available on the open market after the 2018 season. MLB Trade Rumors ranked him No. 41 on their list of the Top 50 free agents, ahead of former Cubs relievers Jesse Chavez and Justin Wilson, among others.

The 32-year-old has been a reliable big-league reliever for the last 7 seasons, sporting a 3.05 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 9.4 K/9 over 415 appearances in that span while racking up 33 saves and 85 holds. He made the All-Star team in 2016 and finished with a 2.05 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 79 innings with the Orioles that season.

He struggled to begin last year (4.85 ERA) with the last-place Orioles, but was rejuvenated by a midseason trade to the contending Braves (1.52 ERA) and headed into free agency with some momentum.

Relievers are in high demand on the open market right now with so much importance on the bullpen (especially in October), but Brach only got a reported $4.35 million and one year guaranteed from the Cubs. Meanwhile, a host of other relievers with quality big-league resumes are forced to take minor-league deals as MLB teams continue their free agency freeze-out.

"I really don't know [what to make of the state of free agency]," Brach said. "We talked to certain teams and they told us, 'We have an algorithm and here's where you fall in that scale.' It's just kinda weird that all offers are the same that come around the same time and everybody tells you there's an algorithm, but you figure teams have different ones, but I don't know.

"It's definitely a weird process and you can't figure it out. Luckily, the guys in the bullpen have been the ones that haven't been hurt as bad. I think if you're at the top of the class, it's fine, but if you're somewhere in the middle, you're gonna get hurt and that's where they're kinda taking advantage of us."

It wasn't like Brach was throwing a pity party or anything when he met with Chicago media for the first time Friday morning. He seemed genuinely pumped up to be a part of the Cubs bullpen and was hooked from the first sentence out of Joe Maddon's mouth during a team meeting the other day, talking about how the goal is to play — and win — the final game of the season.

The 2018 Orioles put together one of the most miserable seasons in recent MLB history (115 losses) and Brach felt the effects as a reliever typically used to working in high-leverage situations.

He made a minor mechanical adjustment but for the most part, he believes the reason he was better with the Braves down the stretch was simply jumping more than 40 games in the standings — going from a last-place rebuilding team to a young squad ticketed for the playoffs.

"It gives you a little kick in the butt and gets you back into winning baseball, which — especially in the bullpen — you want to be a part of," Brach said. "When you're losing so many games, it ends up turning into kind of a spring training where, 'You haven't pitched in 3 or 4 days and we need you to get some work.'

"I just never really excel in those roles. Coming here, knowing that you're expecting to win from Day 1, it's exciting and I'm looking forward to it."

Brach doesn't know what his exact role will be in the Cubs bullpen, but he said he's ready to handle whatever — from filling in for injured closer Brandon Morrow to setting up for teammates like Pedro Strop or Steve Cishek or even pitching in the middle innings if needed.

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