Chicago Cubs

Craig Kimbrel: Is The Juice Really Worth The Squeeze?

Craig Kimbrel is officially off the free-agent market after signing a 3 year – $43M deal with the Chicago Cubs, who took advantage of signing after the 2019 MLB Draft to avoid any sort of compensation for the acquisition. The Cubs were in dire need of an arm that could help bolster their bullpen after going with a closer-by-committee approach. The last time the Cubbies made a big move midseason to their bullpen, they obtained the great Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees, which helped them go on a run of dominance and get over that hump and drought of a World Series Championship.

Chicago took the opportunity to try and land one of the best free agents still available – and succeeded. For the Cubs, a move like this can be looked as one that can help them get back into a deep October run. Let’s be honest, the Cubs bullpen really hasn’t been up to the standard that it takes to close big ball games. Brandon Morrow was supposed to be THAT guy, but a setback in his recovery from elbow surgery hasn’t helped. Reflecting over the past offseason, the Cubs watched the Milwaukee Brewers steal the division at Wrigley in Game 163, and then fell to the Colorado Rockies at home in a win-or-go-home game for the Wild Card. What was a promising season abruptly ended prematurely, as their rivals to the north came within a game of the Fall Classic. Chicago has one of the best young offenses in baseball, when looking at Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Willson Contreras. A baseball team has to be a well-oiled unit, with everything clicking in order to have success. The best teams in baseball happen to have the best bullpens late in games.

But from an outsider’s perspective who looks a lot at analytics, I question the move. Kimbrel himself is 31 years old. Is there a possibility that their could’ve been better moves or players that may have been available? One can argue that without making moves, what position would or could the Cubs be on July 31st? And is it worth $43 million over 3 years to basically say, look, Craig Kimbrel is our guy and he is going to be the one getting us these outs to close games? That’s all questions for Theo Epstein to decide, but for all of us armchair GMs out there, here is why I think the signing is questionable & a major risk.

Statistics   Rank in the NL:
BB/9: 4.8 LAST
K/BB: 1.9 LAST
Saves: 12 14th
Blown Saves: 11 12th

*(Source: MLB on FOX)

1.) How long will it take for Kimbrel to be ready to pitch? Experts predict that Kimbrel could be ready in a couple of weeks, and that he has been pitching in simulated games to keep him on track. Kimbrel was optioned to Des Moines to pitch for the AAA Iowa Cubs to get more simulated action in games. Obviously rushing an arm is never a good option when it comes to getting pitchers ready; Spring Training is helpful in that regard. Kimbrel also pitches the games that involve a ton of emotion and stress, where big games are on the line. Personally, I’m not 100% sure how he is going to do this going from the stress of finding a deal for a competitive team to now pitching in hostile environments say at Busch Stadium or Dodgers Stadium, trying to hold a lead and not lose any some of traction in the NL Central. More on that later.

2.) At his age and for what he will be making, is it a pure and sound investment? It’s worth noting that Pedro Strop & Steve Cishek are free agents after this season. The deal that Kimbrel made makes sense for Chicago when looking at who may be in the clubhouse next year around Spring Training, guaranteeing that there will be some veteran leadership in the pen. It’s an expensive investment though, and here’s why: The Cubs lack prospects who are solid pieces for arms in a bullpen.

Consider this: Chicago isn’t your small market team. Teams like my beloved Milwaukee Brewers, and other small market clubs like the Tampa Bay Rays or Minnesota Twins need to develop from within in order to have a chance. Chicago can go out and spend the money they need in order to make upgrades wherever. From an investment standpoint and from what I love about the game, I’m not a big fan of it, especially if those experiments fail. Take the contract of Barry Zito for example. Zito had a ton of success for the Oakland Athletics before he found his way in San Francisco with a 7 year – $126M contract in 2007. He never lived up to the hype that he had on the other side of the ‘Bay. I just don’t know if I can understand the logistics of a move like this financially.

3.) Pitching in the NL Central (and the National League in general) Let’s look at the NL Central as a whole. All teams in the division have very productive and dangerous lineups up & down their batting order. I have to think that the National League has a lot of better caliber teams up and down their divisions. The Cubs face a schedule in the second half of their season that is NL Central heavy, including 13 of those games against the Brewers, 12 against the Pirates, 10 against the Cardinals and Reds. Throw facing the Padres (twice) and Phillies in a series here and there, it’s not an easy second half. Yes, Kimbrel was built for those moments, but it’s on the rest of his bullpen to get him an opportunity to close out games.

4.) Cubs fans are going to be riding a roller coaster with Kimbrel, that’s just how he is. Craig Kimbrel has been an elite closer, don’t get me wrong. He has the nasty stuff, but here is what I expect with the guy: Lots of runners on base, not a lot of clean innings. Not every appearance for Kimbrel is going to go as expected. Location of pitches has been a big issue for Kimbrel in the past. A lack of command could mean walking batters, allowing balls to be crushed, and suffering damage that way.

However, I don’t see velocity being an issue for Kimbrel, he’s got the juice to get that pitch around 96-98 MPH. Also, keep in mind big league hitters can take fastballs and slap them anywhere across the diamond. His main pitch is going to be his breaking ball, he’s had plenty of work this offseason to work on it, and if that’s been improved, then watch out. I still think it’s still going to take awhile to shake off the rust.

I would say this to any fan out there (Congrats to the Atlanta Braves on winning the Dallas Keuchel sweepstakes) after a signing like this: Here is the move you’ve been looking for, but whether or not that move pans out, that remains to be seen. I would’ve loved to have seen Kimbrel on a one-year prove it deal with Minnesota, and then re-evaluating his status next offseason, but that doesn’t help his case in marketing himself and what he brings to the table. I’ll take homegrown talent any day over buying championships, those just simply mean more to me as a fan.

Let me know your thoughts! Follow @WGLarson on Twitter

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