Kyle Ryan

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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Cubs hoping reinforcements coming soon in Craig Kimbrel, Brandon Kintzler

Cubs hoping reinforcements coming soon in Craig Kimbrel, Brandon Kintzler

With the biggest series of the season looming later this week, the Cubs still don't know if they'll have two of their top relievers available out of the bullpen.

The position player group is already without its two most important players (Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez) and the pitching staff has also taken a hit recently with Craig Kimbrel (right elbow) and Brandon Kintzler (left oblique) unavailable. 

Kimbrel hasn't pitched since serving up a 3-run homer to Christian Yelich on Sept. 1. He later went on the injured list with right elbow inflammation, but initially hoped to be back after the minimum 10-day stay. The best case scenario now would be Kimbrel returning a week beyond his original target date.

He threw a 16-pitch simulated game/live bullpen Tuesday afternoon at Wrigley Field and the Cubs will see how he feels Wednesday before determining the next step. He could either throw another live bullpen session or, if he feels good, return to the active roster and be available for Thursday's series opener with the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals.

"He looked really good, actually," Joe Maddon said. "Delivery was good. There was no hesitation with his arm. He wasn't guarding whatsoever. I thought the fastball was alive. Maybe the command of the curveball was off a bit, but the break was there. It was very encouraging."

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy also liked what he saw from Kimbrel, and felt the Cubs closer wasn't trying to overcompensate with his lower half and messing up his mechanics. 

As Hottovy stressed, the key will be in Wednesday's evaluation, when Kimbrel is able to come out to the field and play catch and see how his elbow recovers after the live action. 

This is already the second injury for Kimbrel, who didn't make his season debut until June 27 and then missed a couple weeks in early August with a knee issue. 

When he's been able to pitch, Kimbrel has 13 saves in 15 chances to go along with a 5.68 ERA and 1.53 WHIP. This is a guy who has never posted a season ERA over 3.40 or WHIP over 1.21 in his nine-year career.

The swing-and-miss stuff has been there (26 strikeouts in 19 innings), but he's also given up 6 homers so far. Between the free agent process that delayed his start to the season and the pair of injuries, Kimbrel really hasn't been able to settle into a groove in his first season with the Cubs.

"I think the best version of him is still in there," Hottovy said. "I think he'd be the first one to agree with that. But again, an 85-90 percent version of him is as good as anybody. [The key is] getting him to where he feels good, is comfortable and we're able to continue to work on things with him.

"This little stretch here gave us some time to clean up some mechanical things we wanted to do that you may not be able to do midseason when he's throwing three of four days or things like that. We were able to do a lot over this time and hopefully be back into it."

As for Kintzler, he hasn't pitched since last Tuesday in San Diego while dealing with his minor side injury. 

He played catch Tuesday and the Cubs are aiming to get him off the mound in a bullpen Wednesday. Once the symptoms subside and he feels like he can get back into his proper mechanics without pain, he'll be ready to return and he's currently holding out hope he'd be ready for Friday's game against St. Louis.

Kintzler thinks he initially hurt his oblique when he fell on the mound throwing a pitch a few weeks ago.

"It just never felt the same after that," he said. "It was day-to-day. Some days were good, some were bad. Some days I was available, some days I wasn't. So it got to the point where I couldn't do that to the team anymore, so we had to shut it down and try to get it right."

The rest of the bullpen has been coming up huge for the Cubs — they have an NL-best 2.32 ERA in September — even without two of the top arms. That's thanks to the emergence of Rowan Wick, Brad Wieck and Kyle Ryan, plus veterans David Phelps, Tyler Chatwood and Steve Cishek.

"Just gotta stay patient," Kintzler said. "San Diego was probably the worst pain I was in. So that wasn't good for anybody. I think the other guys can get the job done if I can't. I just gotta stay patient knowing that if it doesn't feel right, I don't have to rush because the guys are doing a great job. That's helped out a lot mentally for me."

But like Hottovy said, if getting Kimbrel or Kintzler back at only 85 percent would still help the team and with an expanded roster, the Cubs can get away with giving either veteran extra time off after outings.

With the Cubs squaring off against the Cardinals in seven of the final 10 games beginning Thursday, they would certainly like to have Kimbrel and Kintzler available for as many of those contests as they can.

"A lot of it is the communication with how are they feeling? If you rush them back and they pitch one game and then they're down for four days, is that better than them taking two or three extra days at the front end and then being able to regularly pitch like they normally could?" Hottovy said. "That's what we're trying to balance. 

"Right now, we have a little bit more flexibility. If we didn't want Kimbrel to throw another live BP, we can ease him into it because we have the Wi(e)cks, we have Phelps and Chatwood and those guys. We have more numbers down there. So you can pitch him one day and know he's gonna have a few days off potentially to have some coverage.

"We balance all that out and the biggest thing is getting the guys comfortable where they know if they go out on the mound, they can execute. That's the No. 1 thing. Once they can do that and they feel strong and they're recovering well, then I think we'll be ready to roll them out."