Brad Wieck

The Craig Kimbrel Conundrum: Closer a major question mark for 2020 Cubs

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USA TODAY

The Craig Kimbrel Conundrum: Closer a major question mark for 2020 Cubs

The last time Cubs fans saw Craig Kimbrel on the mound, he was staring bewildered at the left-field bleachers after serving up homers to the Cardinals on back-to-back pitches. It was a moment that became the dagger for the 2019 Cubs, even if it didn't officially eliminate them from postseason contention.

That Sept. 21 outing marked Kimbrel's third blown save and fourth loss of the season and the Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong homers were the eighth and ninth longballs the Cubs closer gave up in just 23 outings and 20.2 innings.

Nobody associated with the Cubs saw things playing out quite like this when they signed him in early June. Even Kimbrel's doubters who believed his struggles at the end of his Red Sox tenure were a harbinger of things to come couldn't have anticipated a 6.53 ERA and 1.60 WHIP from a guy who had a career line of a 1.91 ERA and 0.92 WHIP coming into 2019.

So where do the Cubs go from here?

Kimbrel is still owed $16 million for 2020 and 2021 and is the only truly established pitcher the Cubs currently have in their bullpen for next season with Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Pedro Strop and others ticketed for free agency.

The Cubs opted to shut down Kimbrel for the final week of 2019 to get healthy after dealing with knee and elbow issues but neither injury will require surgery this winter, Theo Epstein said.

"He's really determined to have a great offseason and looking forward to a full and legitimate spring training," Epstein said. "He feels awful about the way this year went, recognized that he was in an unusual position, but I think you'll see a really determined individual who will benefit from the full spring training."

The Cubs better hope so.

For a franchise that is going to again have to take their budget into account when building the 2020 roster, that $16 million price tag is an awful lot if Kimbrel cannot return to the elite closer he was before coming to Chicago.

But even beyond that, the Cubs absolutely need him to lock down the ninth inning. Rowan Wick impressed in 2019 and emerged as maybe the team's best reliever down the stretch, but he doesn't have much of a track record. The same goes for lefties Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck. The Cubs have reason to feel optimistic about all three pitchers as up-and-coming relievers, but putting too much stock into a trio of guys without much experience is an easy way to run into major bullpen problems. 

Right now, those are the only four names you can confidently pencil into the 2020 bullpen, though other in-house options loom (Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Danny Hultzen, Duane Underwood Jr., etc.) depending on how the Cubs configure their rotation and the rest of the roster.

There's obvious concern surrounding Kimbrel, but there's also a reasonable case to be confident 2020 will be a different story. In his entire career, he has served up homers at a rate of just 0.72 per 9 innings, so his 3.92 HR/9 this season is a clear aberration that not even the juiced ball can full explain away. 

The velocity dip (down nearly 1 mph from 2018 and 2 mph from 2017) is scary, but may also be related to the odd year Kimbrel had. 

Baseball players — and closers, in particular — are very routine-oriented and no plan can make up for a situation that saw Kimbrel facing live hitters nearly four months later than usual. He's used to throwing off a mound and ramping up in spring training in mid-February and was instead still in a free agency stalemate until early June.

When he was signed, it was viewed as a clear upgrade for the Cubs, who were plagued by early-season bullpen issues. They were only able to afford Kimbrel because Ben Zobrist took a leave of absence and left several million dollars on the table for Epstein to put towards addressing an obvious weakness on the roster.

At the time, signing a World Champion closer on a Hall of Fame trajectory was the best possible way Epstein could shore up the bullpen.

"There was some element of risk, because of the unknown of an elite closer coming in mid-season," Epstein said on the team's final road trip. "That's a risk we were prepared to take because of the opportunity that presented itself. The resources got opened up with Zo's absence and the opportunity of an elite closer sitting there for a contract that was certainly reasonable compared to what most guys of his ilk were getting over the long-term. 

"So, we were prepared to take that. We thought it was a really good fit and we were prepared to take that risk. It hasn't turned out as we had hoped. It obviously [killed] Craig that he wasn't able to help down the stretch here. The two trips to the DL and not being able to reach his accustomed level on a consistent basis, you have to think it's related to not having his normal foundation underneath him. It's something we'll certainly talk to him about and how to have a really effective offseason and get back to his normal Spring Training, so he can get back to being himself consistently."

The underlying numbers tell the true story of the 2019 Cubs bullpen

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USA TODAY

The underlying numbers tell the true story of the 2019 Cubs bullpen

Like their season as a whole, the Cubs bullpen was quite the enigma in 2019.

This season, Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA (No. 8 in MLB) and a .234 batting average against (No. 6 in MLB). On a surface level, that appears good.

But those numbers lose value when paired with what the Cubs bullpen did in high leverage situations: 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB), 15 home runs allowed (tied for No. 22), 61 walks (No. 29) and a .380 on-base percentage (No. 27). The bullpen also blew 28 saves (sixth-most in MLB) and converted just 57.58 percent of their opportunities (No. 22 in MLB).

Essentially, Cubs relievers weren't good enough when it mattered most in 2019. As a result, Theo Epstein and Co. know that they must address the relief corps during the offseason, one where they’re open-minded about changing up the roster..

“It was a real interesting year in the pen,” Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. “Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor [to the Cubs missing the postseason].

“We had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined one and two run games. Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for.”

Signing closer Craig Kimbrel was supposed to alleviate some of the early-season bullpen woes, but he also struggled, finishing the season with a 6.53 ERA in 23 appearances. He'll be back in 2020, and Epstein believes a full spring training will go a long way for his closer.

Where does the rest of the bullpen stand heading into 2020, though?

Brandon Kintzler proved his value to the Cubs in 2019, but he’s set to hit free agency after the postseason. Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop have been two of the team's more reliable relievers in recent seasons, but they also will hit free agency.

The Cubs are unlikely to pick up their team options for Tony Barnette ($3 million) and Derek Holland ($6.5 million), while David Phelps’ $5 million option could be too costly. Phelps can start or pitch in relief, but so can Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay.

Tyler Chatwood, Mills and Alzolay could find themselves competing for a Cubs starting rotation spot, but they’re also bullpen candidates. Dillon Maples and James Norwood will likely be given a look, as will Danny Hultzen. However, Hultzen (and Duane Underwood Jr.) are out of minor league options, meaning the Cubs could lose them via waivers if they don’t make the 2020 Opening Day roster.

Right now, only Kimbrel, Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck are locks to start the 2020 season in the Cubs bullpen. And while Epstein said he needs to do a better job finding relief options, he deserves credit for unearthing the latter three.

After an impressive 2018 season with Triple-A Iowa, the Cubs signed Ryan to a big-league deal last November. And, despite not making the roster out of spring training, he played a big role with the Cubs in 2019.

Not only did Ryan finish the season with a 3.54 ERA (2.13 vs. lefties), but he made a team-high 73 appearances. His emergence made World Series hero Mike Montgomery – whom the Cubs traded to the Royals in July – expendable (though so did the latter’s struggles as a reliever).

The Cubs acquired Wick (Nov. 20, 2018) and Wieck (July 31, 2019) in separate deals with the Padres, and both players have benefitted from working with the Cubs’ “Pitch Lab.” 

Wick finished the season with a 2.43 ERA in 31 outings, striking out 35 batters in 33 1/3 innings. His fastball velocity averaged 95.8 mph in 2019, playing well off of his curveball, which had a 34.1 percent strikeout rate.

At 6-foot-9, Wieck is an intimidating presence on the mound (as a lefty, nonetheless). His fastball velocity averaged 93.7 mph in 2019, while the pitch lab helped him add more vertical break to his curveball:


(Baseball Savant)

In short, Ryan, Wick and Wieck came out of relatively nowhere, though each offer the Cubs something that the team needs. Ryan pitches well against left-handed hitters; Wick and Wieck have high velocity and generate swings and misses.

Ryan is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, while Wick and Wieck are still under team control. Therefore, they won’t cost the Cubs a lot to retain, which means more money is available to add other bullpen pieces.

The Cubs have more needs than relief pitching, including center field, second base, a leadoff hitter and starting pitching depth. Therefore, they may need Epstein to work his magic again and unearth another low-key pitcher or two with high potential.

Epstein admitted that the solid ‘pen numbers mean less when paired with the high leverage woes, but he also expressed optimism for how the group performed, especially the under the radar guys.

“…I think it shows the talent level that’s there and [it’s] encouraging as well,” Epstein said, “because a lot of those contributions came from some under the radar pitchers, guys who were up through the organization or acquired in small deals, who I think made real important adjustments and showed that they can compete and potentially dominate at the big-league level.

“We’ve seen more of that. We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats, which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

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Glass half-full: Some September positives for the Cubs

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USA TODAY

Glass half-full: Some September positives for the Cubs

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs just got swept by the last-place, 91-loss Pirates and haven't "flown the W" since Sept. 16.

Thursday marked the very first game in the Joe Maddon era that had zero playoff implications for the Cubs. It was also the first such experience for Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Albert Almora Jr. in the big leagues.

So it's understandable if Cubs fans aren't feeling too "glass half full" right about now. 

But things haven't been all bad during September. Zooming out and looking big picture, there are some clear positives to take away from what was otherwise a disastrous month for the Cubs.

Yu Darvish

Darvish's season is done, with the Cubs announcing Thursday they're shutting down the 33-year-old right-hander. He finishes 6-8 with a 3.98 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 229 strikeouts on the year — an enormous bounceback season in his second season in Chicago.

After accounting for just 40 innings across 8 starts in his first year of a $126 million contract, he pitched 178.2 innings in 31 starts this season. 

Darvish will go down as one of the Cubs' MVPs of the season with a huge second half that included a 2.39 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in September with 46 strikeouts against only 4 walks. That's especially impressive considering he began the month with a forearm issue.

All the "new year, new Yu" talk about Darvish in spring training came to fruition and he will head into the offseason and 2020 on a high note. That's huge for a team that will be facing some big decisions on the pitching staff.

Nico Hoerner

Once a wrist injury cost him two months of the season, nobody expected the Cubs' top prospect up in the big leagues in 2019. But injuries to Javy Baez and Russell prompted the promotion and the rookie has impressed in a huge way. 

Hoerner has hit .288 with a .789 OPS and his elite contact skills have transferred from the minors to the big leagues. It sure looks like he's going to play a big part on the 2020 roster — potentially even on Opening Day.

"You cannot have possibly asked for more than you’ve got out of Nico," Maddon said. "And the thing is, he’s gonna keep getting better. This guy is a gym rat when it comes to baseball. He loves doing this and he does it really, really well. He’s a solid, really good baseball player and he’s gonna keep getting better. I really believe that."

Hoerner has had some hiccups at shortstop in the big leagues, but he has also shown he can clearly be valuable insurance to Javy Baez there next season. He played a lot of second base and center field in the minors and Maddon said he will roll Hoerner out in those roles over the final series in St. Louis.

Mix that all with his composure, competitive nature and team-focused mindset and it looks like the Cubs have found a core piece of the team moving forward.

Future pitching options

The 2020 bullpen is emerging as one of the most intriguing storylines surrounding the Cubs this winter and the Wi(e)cks are a big reason why. 

Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck each pitched 9.2 innings in September and in those outings combined for 26 strikeouts while allowing just 6 hits and 3 earned runs. 

Wick had already emerged as a high-leverage reliever earlier in the season, but with injuries to Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler, he ascended as Maddon's most trusted bullpen arm in the season's final month. Wieck quickly earned high-leverage opportunities, as well, and not only as a situational lefty. 

Both guys figure to play key roles for the 2020 team.

Beyond that, Alec Mills also impressed in his 4 appearances (0.84 ERA) this month, including a spot start last week against the Cardinals where he tossed 4.2 shutout innings. He will start against St. Louis again Friday and enters the winter in the swingman mix on next season's pitching staff.

Tyler Chatwood is firmly in that swingman mix, if not the frontrunner for the Cubs' fifth starter spot. Including a spot start and six relief appearances in September, Chatwood posted a 1.38 ERA in September to go along with a 0.85 WHIP and 16 strikeouts in 13 innings. That lowers his season ERA to 3.76 in his resurgent campaign. 

Chatwood has been dealing with a mild shoulder injury, so the Cubs don't know yet if he will pitch again this season.

On more of a personal level, the Cubs also had the opportunity to give Danny Hultzen his first MLB experience and potentially send Pedro Strop out on a good note. 

Hultzen, 29, was the second overall pick back in 2011 and faced a tough road to the big leagues after a variety of injuries. His six games haven't been perfect (4 hits allowed, 2 walks, 1 hit-batter and he also committed an error), but he has yet to give up a run and has 5 strikeouts in 3.1 innings since his debut on Sept. 8.

If this is the end of the line for the 34-year-old Strop in a Cubs uniform, he'll go down as one of the best relievers in franchise history. He's a free agent after this season and his 2019 was marred by injury and struggles on the mound (4.99 ERA). But he has a 1.29 ERA in September and he was — fittingly — the last Cub to throw at pitch at Wrigley this season.

Short-term injuries

This month's injuries will be near the top of reasons why this 2019 season won't end in any playoffs for the Cubs. But the good news is none of the injuries figure to impact the players for 2020 or beyond.

Kimbrel's elbow inflammation was minor and he was at least hitting 96 and 97 mph on the gun during his difficult return to the mound against the Cardinals last weekend. 

Anthony Rizzo's nasty-looking sprained ankle somehow healed enough in three days to allow him to heroically suit up against the Cardinals, but now that the Cubs are officially eliminated, they won't risk any further injury by playing him. The same goes for Bryant, who felt very fortunate he didn't suffer a bad knee injury or anything else when he slipped on first base Sunday at Wrigley Field.

Baez's fractured thumb did not require surgery and he's been able to pinch-hit once and run the bases a few times over the last week, even if he hasn't been well enough to play the field. 

Zobrist's return

It feels like so long ago, but this month actually began with the return of Ben Zobrist to the active roster after four months tending to his family situation.

It was clear the Cubs missed him both as a player and as a person and the fans were ecstatic to have their 2016 World Series MVP back. As far as production on the field, the 38-year-old Zobrist looked like he hadn't missed any time, hitting .295 with a .377 on-base percentage and .787 OPS. 

With his contract up after this season, it was good to see him get back on the field and have an opportunity to potentially end his career in Chicago on a high note instead of on personal leave. 

Schwarber keeps mashing

Schwarber continues to rake in the second half of the season and enters the weekend series with a .341 batting average and 1.086 OPS in 94 September plate appearances. He also leads the team in RBI for the month (18) and looks to have taken a step forward as an overall run producer since the All-Star Break. 

After getting the day off Thursday, Schwarber will rejoin the starting lineup in St. Louis and a huge series could net him 40 homers and 100 RBI for the season (he's currently at 37 and 91, respectively). 

With the way he's finished the season, he's silenced a lot of doubters and looks to be key piece for this team in 2020 and beyond.