Craig Kimbrel Can Go from Shunned 7-Time All-Star to Cubs Savior

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 6, 2019

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 24: Craig Kimbrel #46 of the Boston Red Sox celebrates a victory in game two of the 2018 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on October 23, 2018 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

The end of Craig Kimbrel's free-agency nightmare is finally here, and it ought to be just the thing to wake up the Chicago Cubs bullpen.

With draft-pick compensation no longer holding him back, Kimbrel figured to finally sign a contract once the 2019 Major League Baseball draft was completed. That moment came to pass Wednesday afternoon, and the Cubs had a deal with the 31-year-old right-hander shortly thereafter.

The news was first reported by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. ESPN.com's Jeff Passan later came through with the terms:

Jeff Passan @JeffPassan

Craig Kimbrel's deal with the Chicago Cubs is for three years and $43 million and includes a fourth-year option, sources tell ESPN. He'll receive $10 million this season and $16 million in 2020 and 2021. There is a $1 million buyout on a club/vesting option for the fourth year.

Kimbrel initially set his sights much higher than $43 million—more on that later—but this deal is more or less in line with his amended asking price. According to Rosenthal, he was said to be seeking Zack Britton (three years, $39 million) or Wade Davis (three years, $52 million) money as of April.

Before the Cubs are to be congratulated for adding a seven-time All-Star closer to their bullpen, they must first be scolded for not acting sooner.

After all, Kimbrel was a strong fit for them from the onset of his free agency. Although their bullpen finished 2018 with a National League-best 3.35 ERA, its 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings, 4.2 walks per nine innings and other peripheral stats raised doubts about whether it truly deserved that mark.

To boot, ace closer Brandon Morrow didn't pitch after July 15 because of a balky elbow that eventually required surgery in November. But instead of immediately tasking Kimbrel with filling Morrow's shoes, the Cubs sought a cheap reclamation project in the person of Brad Brach. 

Sure enough, Chicago's bullpen hasn't been a paragon of reliability in 2019. It has a 4.17 ERA, and its peripherals include an 8.9 K/9 (12th in the NL) and a 4.5 BB/9 (tied for last in the NL). It's ultimately done more harm than good to the team's win probability.

It's hard not to wonder where the Cubs would be if they'd signed Kimbrel months ago. They'd likely be better than 34-26 and thus have more breathing room in the NL Central race. All they've gained from waiting to sign Kimbrel is a draft pick and perhaps a few million bucks.

Still, the phrase "better late than never" does indeed apply in this case. 

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 27:  Closing pitcher Craig Kimbrel #46 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the ninth inning in Game Four of the 2018 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on October 27, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Ph
Harry How/Getty Images

All through this past offseason—and even through the first two months of the 2019 season—much of the discussion regarding Kimbrel has revolved around what he isn't anymore.

By reputation, he's one of the greatest closers baseball has ever known. His seven All-Star selections are supported by 333 career saves, as well as a 1.91 ERA and 14.7 K/9. The latter ranks second to Aroldis Chapman (14.9) among all pitchers who've ever logged over 500 innings.

However, the one-time member of the Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox did not enter his first foray into free agency off his strongest season.

Although he saved 42 games in 2018, his ERA was only 2.74, and his K/9 declined from 16.4 in 2017 to 13.9. He endured a difficult second half and an even more difficult postseason. He put up a 5.91 ERA over nine October appearances, and he was notably not selected to close out Boston's World Series victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Kimbrel's postseason struggles may or may not have come from him tipping his pitches, but he did have tangible weaknesses in 2018.

In particular, his typically unhittable fastball suffered diminished velocity and a diminished spin rate. Its swing-and-miss rate suffered for it, and that wasn't good for his contact rate within the strike zone.

To a skeptic, all this constitutes an obvious case of a once-great pitcher taking his first steps into the twilight of his career. And since there's no shortage of skeptics in major league front offices, there never was much hope of Kimbrel realizing his dream, per Jayson Stark of The Athletic, of becoming baseball's first $100 million closer.

All the same, Kimbrel still often looked the part of an overwhelming relief ace in 2018. Allow Rob Friedman to demonstrate:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Craig Kimbrel, 98mph Fastball and 88mph Knuckle Curve, Overlay. Good luck. https://t.co/U0kZATGLhQ

And despite his red flags, Kimbrel went into free agency with plenty of data points worth boasting about.

To wit, he finished 2018 with the eighth-best ERA+ among qualified American League relievers. His hard-hit rate was actually down, and he posted the lowest overall contact rate of any reliever.

It's the second of those points that may have convinced president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and the rest of the Cubs front office to roll the dice on Kimbrel. Out of NL clubs, only Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants relievers have allowed contact at a higher rate.

Simply from an orbital perspective, Chicago's bullpen certainly looks better now that Kimbrel is aboard.

Manager Joe Maddon can reserve him for save situations and select high-leverage appearances. That will free him to play matchup games with his right-handers (Brach, Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Carl Edwards Jr.) and left-handers (Kyle Ryan and Mike Montgomery).

Perhaps the biggest question is whether Kimbrel will ultimately show any ill effects from his long stay on the free-agent market. That seemed to happen to fellow closer Greg Holland last season, and his "long" stay on the market only lasted until March 29.

But for their part, the Cubs can optimistically look forward to a best-case scenario in which Kimbrel at least picks up where he left off and brings stability to a previously unstable bullpen. Elsewhere in this scenario, their offense and starting pitching remain outstanding, and they're able to tighten their grip on the NL Central with relative ease.

Since this is far from an implausible scenario, the pressure is now on the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals to make their own midseason splashes.


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball.


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