Tom Ricketts

Craig Kimbrel addition sends clear message to Cubs: 'It's a real shot in the arm'

Craig Kimbrel addition sends clear message to Cubs: 'It's a real shot in the arm'

The Cubs bullpen got the message loud and clear when Kyle Schwarber came out to left field Wednesday night and mimicked Craig Kimbrel's pre-pitch wing in the top of the third inning.

But the entire Cubs roster got the message loud and clear from the front office and ownership that there is good reason to believe in this team as a championship contender.

As the Kimbrel news broke during the Cubs' victory Wednesday night, the good vibes carried into Thursday — the home clubhouse at Wrigley was buzzing with excitement Thursday morning before the 3-1 loss to the Rockies — and that very well could continue for a while. 

Weeks before Kimbrel is even ready to throw a pitch for this club, he'll have an impact on a team that just took over sole possession of first place Wednesday night. 

"It means a lot [when management makes moves like this]," catcher Willson Contreras said. "We have more confidence, more security."

Kimbrel's addition already has guys dreaming about what this team will look like at full strength.

"We have a dominant force now," veteran reliever Brandon Kintzler said. "It's basically a race — almost like the Brewers, where you have to score before you get to [Josh] Hader. For us, just keep the lead to get to him.

"We went from really short bullpen with [Pedro Strop] out to all of a sudden, Stroppy comes back and now you're really long. It's a real shot in the arm. Putting Stroppy in the eighth [inning], now you can do a whole bunch of stuff in the sixth and seventh and now all of us don't have to throw every day. It's great."

Think back to that Jose Quintana trade in early July 2017 and how that gave the Cubs some extra juice in the clubhouse and served as a clear message from Theo Epstein's front office to the roster: We believe in you.

This is the same thing, but potentially with an even bigger impact. The 2017 Cubs were coming off the World Series run and they admittedly had a "hangover" in the first half of that season. 

The 2019 Cubs are coming off a very disappointing end to the 2018 season and spent the winter and spring talking about urgency and the importance of showing up every single day with a killer instinct. The first two months of the season haven't exactly been a smooth ride, but the Cubs have shown they have all the makings of a team that can compete for the World Series. And this week, they've added another veteran bat (Carlos Gonzalez) and arguably the top closer in the game right now (Kimbrel) to help bolster the team that fought through the tough moments in the season's first couple months.

"Bringing Cargo over here was awesome too — look at what he's done for our lineup so far in four games," said veteran reliever Steve Cishek, who picked up his 6th save of the season Wednesday night. "Now the bullpen is lengthened out [with Kimbrel] and we can [play to] matchups more now. It's a good recipe for success."

An hour or so before the Kimbrel news broke, Epstein spoke with Chicago media and talked about how this roster has earned the trust of the front office — between rising above the early-season adversity, the way so many hitters have turned things around and shown the second half last year was an aberration and also how strong the starting rotation has been.

The bullpen was the biggest area of weakness on this team coming into the season and it remained that way as June began. Kimbrel was the best relief arm on the market and now the Cubs feel like they've locked down the ninth inning for the entire second half of the season and beyond.

"It's awesome," Cishek said. "When I first signed here, I saw that was going to be the case anyways. You saw the trade deadline last year when we got some good acquisitions. We're built to win. I think we were built to win to start the season, now we're just continuing to improve, try to help us out.

"They believed in us at the start of the season. They wanted to keep the same guys in here — which, to us, meant a lot. They didn't deconstruct the lineup or pitching staff. They said they believe in us, let's roll. So that meant a lot. And then adding a piece like [Kimbrel] definitely ensures we're built to win. It's really exciting."

Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer have added to this team every year since they were surprise contenders in 2015. But with Kimbrel this summer, it's different.

Yes, the Aroldis Chapman deal in 2016 was big for that team, but the Cubs already had a sizable lead in the division by that point and everybody knew they were ticketed for the playoffs. They didn't need confidence or reassurance. The Chapman move was as much about October as anything else.

Last summer, the Cubs went out and acquired Cole Hamels at the trade deadline and then brought in veteran bat Daniel Murphy on a waiver deal in August. But both of those moves were as much about necessity as anything else — acquiring veterans on expiring deals to fill clear holes in the rotation and lineup (particularly with Yu Darvish and Kris Bryant injured). 

With Kimbrel, the Cubs could've continued to skate by with their current bullpen, especially as Strop just returned Tuesday from a month-long absence due to a hamstring injury.

But the front office and team ownership believed in this team enough to go out and make the most impactful addition possible.

"It's just who our guys are," Joe Maddon said. "They've always done that wherever they've been. Being part of this organization now where you have the ability, the wherewithal to do things like this, obviously it's pretty good. Many places, you're gonna just have to suffer through moments and just make the best of what you've got whereas Theo, Jed, Mr. Ricketts, etc. they've done a wonderful job of being able to piece things together while the thing's in progress and able to fill holes. 

"It's a different method not everybody can employ, but yes, we're very fortunate to have those guys out there doing that for us."

19 for '19: Will Cubs' payroll issues bleed into the season?

19 for '19: Will Cubs' payroll issues bleed into the season?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: Will the payroll issues bleed into the season?

In case you've been living under a rock and have completely missed the storyline that has persisted all winter about the Cubs' financial constraints, we'll catch you up quickly:

The Cubs did not sign Bryce Harper. Their biggest offseason additions were Daniel Descalso and Brad Brach (on top of picking up Cole Hamels' $20 million option). Chairman Tom Ricketts said there isn't any more money to spend for the Year of Reckoning.

Think that pretty much covers it.

To be clear — the Cubs are not cheap. The roster Theo Epstein put together for Opening Day a year ago cost about $182 million, which was the highest in franchise history. This year, that number has ballooned to north of $220, which is just behind the Boston Red Sox for the largest payroll in the game.

Still, it's easy to understand why fans are upset. The bullpen was already filled with question marks heading into the winter and the Cubs couldn't beat the $8 million offer Jesse Chavez got from the Rangers to keep the reliable reliever in town. The game's top closer (Craig Kimbrel) is still unsigned with Opening Day just over a week away while the Cubs bullpen continues to deal with injuries.

Who knows what the payroll will look like next offseason with a bunch of money coming off the books, but will Epstein's front office have any wiggle room for the remainder of this year?

Last season, the Cubs had the flexibility to add a few months of salaries for veterans like Hamels, Daniel Murphy and Brandon Kintzler before the trade deadlines (both July and August). If they're in contention again this summer, will they have the same freedom?

Epstein's front office usually plans on setting aside a chunk of money in the budget to add to the payroll midseason and there's nothing to indicate that won't be the case in 2019. 

Then again, the Cubs haven't had a winter quite like this one in a long time.

Another wrinkle to the money issue is the status of a trio of high-paid veterans. If Tyler Chatwood (still owed more than $25 million), Brian Duensing ($3.5 million) and Kintzler ($5 million) can't find their form again, will the Cubs be forced to consider a release and eat the rest of the money? On the other hand, in the best case scenario, maybe a guy like Chatwood can do enough to boost his trade value where the Cubs could deal him away and only be on the hook for part of his salary.

Even if the Cubs are still somewhat hamstrung financially midseason, the good news is that the area they're most likely to have to augment — the bullpen — can be fixed on the cheap. Nowadays, reliable relievers can be found anywhere and won't necessarily cost much in terms of prospects or money (Chavez is a perfect example). 

And hey, maybe this is the year the Cubs actually have some reinforcements come from within to help the bullpen.

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.

19 for '19: Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?

cubs_19_for_19_off-field_distractions_slide.jpg
AP

19 for '19: Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?

By the time the Cubs had their first full-squad workout in spring training, everybody seemed rather anxious to get an opportunity to "stick to sports." 

Between the Addison Russell domestic abuse situation, Joe Ricketts' racist emails, the Cubs-vs.-Tunney political war, the new TV deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group and the Rickettses' continued involvement with President Trump and right-wing politics, there's been a lot of energy expelled discussing non-baseball matters around the Cubs this winter. 

Not every one of those aforementioned conflicts is a hot-button issue with each fan and there are always bound to be off-field controversies with a business as high profile as the Cubs, but it has certainly been an exhausting winter. 

Add in all the drama over the broken state of MLB free agency, the Cubs' budgetary concerns and even the minor war of words between Kris Bryant/Chicago and Yadier Molina/St. Louis and you can see why players and coaches were so eager to talk about batting stances and bunt rotations and velocity.

It's certainly not the way any team would choose to begin their new season, let alone a squad that has lofty goals for the year ahead and plenty to prove on the field.

Even Joe Maddon admitted all the heavy topics were draining.

"Of course. We're here to play baseball," he said in late February. "I know we're part of the social fabric of this country and people watch us all the time and we're very popular as baseball players. But I would prefer to getting back to just talking about baseball. That's what we're here for — we're here to entertain. We're part of the entertainment industry, I think. 

"I know people like to take that respite away from the rest of the world and just get absorbed into those 3 or 3.5 hours [during the game]. It's our job to make sure we're playing well enough to make that an enjoyable 3-3.5 hours and that's what we're here for.

"I understand people doing their jobs, I understand the interest and the reason behind asking very difficult questions. But after all, we need to get back to becoming the baseball team that we are. The fact is, we entertain on a baseball field and that's what we're looking forward to do."

The thing is, many of these issues won't go away and many fans don't have the option of "sticking to sports," especially with issues like abuse, racism and Islamophobia that may hit close to home.

The Russell situation has quieted down now, but it will certainly pick up steam again around the end of April when his suspension is due to end. Who knows how many more Ricketts email leaks Splinter has planned or when they will drop. Discussions over the TV deal and carriage issues will grow louder as time moves on.

There's no guarantee issues like politics, TV rights and emails will penetrate the bubble of the Cubs' locker room, but players will at least be asked about Russell over and over again this year as they try to march toward another World Series.

The Cubs will never admit the Russell situation was a distraction last year in the midst of a playoff race. Maybe it had zero impact on the on-field product, but the simple fact of the matter is, Cubs players, coaches and front office execs were asked about it often and had to discuss the situation while Russell remained silent behind the MLB investigation. 

Instead of talking or thinking about baseball, they were talking or thinking about a heavy topic and trying hard to avoid adding more fuel to the fire with an insensitive comment.

So no matter how badly they may want to stick to baseball, the Cubs won't have that luxury in 2019.

But this is also a veteran-laden locker room and coaching staff, and they're certainly no strangers to dealing with off-field distractions.

Time well tell if it will have any impact on the Cubs' win-loss column or what controversy may be lurking around the next corner, but they have plenty to focus their attention on between the white lines and they're not interested in any excuses. 

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.